by Douglas Le Comte
The 2007-2008 winter will be remembered as one of the fiercest on record from the Great Lakes to New England, as storm after storm piled up snowfall totals that broke century-old records. February featured the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1985, while heavy rain from February through June resulted in widespread flooding across the Mississippi Valley. The Atlantic hurricane season produced a record number of consecutive storms to strike the United States; the season was headlined by Hurricane Ike, which was the third-costliest storm on record. The year ended with another bout of wild winter weather that wreaked havoc from coast to coast during December.
An Old-Fashioned Winter
For those who recall those old-fashioned winters with deep snow and cold air and thought that global warming meant an end to such wintry dreams, the winter of 2007-2008 was a wakeup call for residents from the Upper Midwest to New England. The prevalent storm track steered one low pressure system after another across the country, and the entrenched cold air meant that most of the precipitation was the frozen kind. From Wisconsin to Maine, snow covered the ground from early December through March and, in some cases, well into April. In Concord, New Hampshire, you had to go all the way back to the winter of 1873-1874 to exceed the year’s snowfall of 119.5 inches. With the snow piled up so high, just finding a parking space became a real challenge. In Gilford, New Hampshire, winter became too much even for the winter carnival in late February; authorities had to cancel 2 events due to poor roads and snow-filled parking lots.
Stormy weather affected much of the country beyond the Midwest and Northeast. On the West Coast, a barrage of Pacific storms slammed into California from January 4-6, dumping several feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains, flooding valleys, and bringing high winds to many areas. Blizzard conditions created especially dangerous travel problems in the Sierra on January 4. The National Weather Service office in Reno minced no words when it issued a warning that read: “Attempts to travel in the Sierra will put your life at risk!” Snow totals reached as high as 71 inches, and wind gusts at lower elevations hit 82 mph (in Redding) on the 4th. Extreme winds struck the peaks, with a gust to 149 mph reported at Mammoth Mountain on January 4-5. Falling tree limbs led to widespread power outages in California, while rainfall amounts of up to 8 inches led to flooding.
This and other storms during the meteorological winter (December to February) provided hope that California’s drought was coming to an end, but the jet stream and storm track shifted northward after February and abnormally dry weather took hold from March through May. With cumulative precipitation from those 3 months of less than 25 percent of normal, the meteorological spring ranked as the driest such period in more than 100 years of record-keeping for the Golden State.
January and February saw some impressive cold air drop out of Canada. Football fans might recall January 20 in Green Bay, Wisconsin—site of one of the coldest National Football League games ever played. The Green Bay Packers lost to the New York Giants by a score of 23-20 at frosty Lambeau Field as thermometers hovered at numbingly low readings of several degrees below zero. The Giants survived to win the Super Bowl against New England two weeks later in much warmer Arizona.
On January 24, temperatures dropped to -30°F in Iowa, the lowest offical reading in the state since Christmas Day in 2000, when thermometers reached -34°F.
In a year with numerous tornado outbreaks, the deadliest erupted from a powerful storm that raked the South on February 5-6. The 2008 Super Tuesday tornado outbreak killed 57 people in 4 states, including 31 in Tennessee. This was the deadliest U.S. outbreak since May 31, 1985, and the deadliest February outbreak since 1971. The low pressure system that caused the tornadoes also caused straight-line wind damage, large hail, major flooding, freezing rain, and heavy snow. The 13.4-inch snowfall total in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 5-6 was its second-greatest 24-hour total.
Abnormal cold affected the nation from Alaska to Florida in 2008. Extraordinary chill covered the eastern Interior of Alaska during the first 12 days of February. Tok Junction recorded -70°F on the 6th, the first -70°F reading in Alaska in more than 7 years. The village of Chicken, in the eastern Interior, reached -72°F on the 7th-8th.
A particularly fierce Arctic blast struck the Midwest and Northeast on February 10-11, with International Falls, Minnesota, seeing -40°F on the 11th. Strong winds heralding the advance of the bitter cold air mass raked the East on the 10th, leaving tens of thousands of customers without power in the Washington, D.C., area.
A vast area of the nation recorded above-normal precipitation during winter, from California through the Rockies, and on into the Midwest and Northeast. Many areas measured more than twice the normal rain and snow. Meanwhile, dry weather aggravated drought conditions in southern Texas and North Dakota, and both areas reported less than half of normal precipitation.
Winter temperatures averaged 2 to 6°F below normal from the West Coast into the Upper Midwest, while the Southeast and Eastern Seaboard experienced readings around 2°F above normal.
In the Southeast, heavy rains relieved drought from southern Alabama into South Carolina, but rainfall around 75 percent of normal farther north was not enough to end drought from northern Alabama into southwestern Virginia.
Flooding began in Ohio and Indiana in early February, and the heavy snows across the Upper Midwest helped to set the stage for more significant river flooding later on.
The same storms that brought winter flooding to the Midwest also brought record snows from Wisconsin to northern New England. La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Rochester, Minnesota, experienced snow cover during the entire December-to-February period for the first time since 1978-1979. In New Hampshire, Concord reported a depth of 45 inches on March 2, a truly astounding measurement for a low-elevation, non-mountain location. Concord’s snow cover extended from December 3-April 14 without a break, with 25 inches still on the ground on April 1.
The north-central states also suffered from a seemingly endless winter. From April 5-7, 20- 32 inches of snow buried northern Minnesota. Another storm from April 25-27 dumped 19 inches of snow on Watertown, South Dakota. Monthly snowfall reached 23.5 inches in International Falls, Minnesota.
Farther south and east, Madison, Wisconsin, established a seasonal snowfall record with 101.4 inches, and Youngstown, Ohio, tallied 102.4 inches. Both totals roughly doubled the normal.
Persistent rain and snow set the stage for the flooding that hit the Midwest from March to June. February precipitation was more than twice the normal from Missouri to New England. Flooding really became important in March, when monthly precipitation exceeded 200 percent of normal from Ohio to Missouri and on to Texas.
March 18 was the wettest March day on record in many locations, including Evansville, Indiana (6.40 inches), and Cape Girardeau, Missouri (11.48 inches). A strong influx of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico fueled a low pressure system, and the resulting deluge sent rivers over their banks in several states, including Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas. The White River in Arkansas reached its highest level since 1981, when it rose to 12 feet above flood stage in Batesville on March 20.
Severe weather accompanied the series of storms that crossed the nation in March. One of the most notable events came on the 14th, when a rare urban tornado cut a 6-mile swath of destruction through Atlanta, Georgia, causing one death and considerable property damage. The twister knocked hundreds of hotel rooms out of commission and damaged the city’s largest convention site, the Georgia World Congress Center. The storm injured 27 people in the city. The severe weather on March 14-15 reportedly caused an estimated $250 million in damage statewide.
Severe weather led to 189 tornadoes in April, and May featured a remarkable total of 460 such storms, leading to 43 deaths. The “Mother’s Day” outbreak of May 10-11 led to 24 fatalities, including 16 in Missouri and 6 in Oklahoma. This was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Oklahoma since the May 3, 1999, historical episode that took 44 lives.
Another severe weather episode ripped across the Midwest and Plains from May 22-27. An EF5 twister struck Butler County, Iowa, on the 25th, causing 8 fatalities. The three-quarter mile wide vortex destroyed or heavily damaged half of the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa. The storm destroyed more than 200 homes.
By the end of May, there were 3 areas of the nation experiencing moisture extremes. Less than 25 percent of normal precipitation from March to May resulted in the driest such period in 114 years of record-keeping in California. In Texas, drought intensified over the south-central parts of the state; San Antonio measured its driest September to May period since 1872, with rain gauges picking up a meager 6.57 inches of rain for the 9-month period. In contrast, the steady parade of low pressure areas crossing the Midwest brought about the fifth-wettest spring (March to May) in 114 years, with Missouri recording the wettest spring since 1973 with about 20 inches of rain. An area from southeastern Missouri to southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana measured more than twice the normal spring rainfall and the wettest spring on record.
The wet spring set the stage for historic flooding in June. The trigger was a storm that dumped more than 4 inches of rain from Iowa to Wisconsin on June 7-8 and 6-10 inches of rain in central Indiana on June 6-7. A reported total of 10.71 inches on the 7th in Edinburgh, Indiana, broke the state record for daily rainfall amounts. Starting on June 7, several Mississippi River tributaries rose to record levels, and record floods affected parts of the Mississippi River basin for 2 weeks from June 7-21. On June 13, the Cedar River inundated Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the river exceeded the previous record crest by 11.12 feet and topped the flood stage by 19.12 feet. Some 25,000 residents fled the city, as floodwaters submerged more than 400 blocks of downtown Cedar Rapids. The water rose high enough to nearly submerge warehouses along the river.
Although several river crests broke records, the overall flooding levels and damage did not reach the same levels as the 1993 flood in the area. But this flooding had much in common with the historic flood, in that both resulted from a persistent storm track that dumped heavy precipitation over a large area for several months, much of the same area was affected, and both events took place around the same time of the year, although the 1993 flooding peaked in July rather than June.
A Record-Setting Tropical Storm Season
A total of 16 named storms formed this season in the Atlantic, including 8 hurricanes. For the first time on record, 6 consecutive tropical cyclones (Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike) made landfall on the U.S. mainland. Tropical Storm Fay became the only storm on record to make landfall 4 times in a single state when it struck Florida in August. Fay, which first made landfall on Florida’s west coast on August 18, dumped enormous amounts of water on the state. The east coast of the state near Cape Canaveral saw as much as 2 feet of rain, and river flooding continued for weeks.
Hurricane Gustav weakened to Category 2 status before making landfall along the central coast of Louisiana on September 1. The storm led to the state’s largest evacuation in history, as 1.9 million people fled the storm. The storm dropped as much as 11 inches of rain in the Baton Rouge area, and Gustav’s winds toppled thousands of trees, resulting in power outages for about 1.5 million homes and businesses.
Hurricane Ike struck Galveston on September 13. Although it was a Category 2 storm, its impacts were massive because of its large size. Ike’s estimated damages of $27 billion make it the third-costliest storm in U.S. history, exceeded only by Andrew and Katrina. The Bolivar Peninsula just north of Galveston sustained the most damage, as the storm surge totally inundated the Peninsula, destroying nearly all the homes. Galveston also suffered major damage, as the estimated storm surge reached 13 feet on the bay side and 14 feet on the Gulf side of the island. Ike caused 11 direct deaths in Galveston. The storm drove inland and damaged buildings in Houston, before tracking northwestward and northward, leaving a trail of destruction from flooding and wind.
One of Ike’s surprises was the impact on the Midwest several days after making landfall in Texas. On September 14, Cleveland, Ohio, measured a 54-mph wind gust. Winds gusted to 66 mph in Mansfield, Ohio. More than 9 inches of rain drenched southwestern Michigan and northwestern Indiana, and Chicago reported 8.08 inches of rain on September 13-14.
The record dry spring contributed to high fire danger in California. Dry lightning strikes on June 21-22 ignited some 800 fires over northern California. Santa Ana winds fanned the flames of fires in the Los Angeles area in October, but the most damaging Southern California event took place in November. Canyon winds reaching 70 mph whipped up an inferno that destroyed 210 homes in Montecito, an enclave of expensive homes near Santa Barbara. The next day flames destroyed more than 400 trailer homes in the San Fernando Valley. This fire burned more than 10,000 acres. A third fire, known as the Triangle Complex, scorched nearly 29,000 acres east of Los Angeles, destroying 155 residences.
Early Winter Storms
Winter weather struck early and hard in the fall of 2008. A major snowstorm hit the Montana and Wyoming area on October 12-14. In the East, an intense coastal low brought heavy snow from the Poconos to the Catskills and Adirondacks on October 28. Up to 14 inches of snow buried northwestern New Jersey, with as much as 20 inches in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The Great Lakes experienced heavy lake-effect snows from November 16-19, with up to 30 inches downwind of Lake Erie in upstate New York.
The end of 2008 featured one of the wildest Decembers in recent years, as a series of storms brought heavy snow, high winds, freezing rain, tornadoes, and flooding rains to much of the nation. The severe wintry weather also included Arctic blasts of air out of Canada.
One low pressure system affected a vast area of real estate from Texas to New England from December 9-12. An inch of snow fell as far south as Houston, Texas, on the 10th and New Orleans, Louisiana, on the 11th, with up to 5 inches to the north of New Orleans. Mississippi experienced 16 tornadoes on the 9th before the cold air invasion and then up to 9 inches of snow 1 day later. Heavy rain caused flooding in several Southeastern states, and a major ice storm brought down trees and power lines from New York into New England. The coating of up to 1 inch of ice on December 11-12 left at least 1.27 million utility customers without electricity, including 430,000 in New Hampshire and 350,000 in Massachusetts. In New Hampshire, this ice storm far exceeded the damage of any other storm in history, leaving more than half the population without power. During the restoration effort, Public Service of New Hampshire restrung 120 miles of power cable, reset 250 broken poles, and replaced 1,500 transformers.
As a major cold mass of air plunged southward from Canada on December 12, a blizzard paralyzed transportation in the northern Plains. By December 15, temperatures had plummeted to as low as -30°F in Montana. In Colorado, Denver reported a remarkable minimum of -19°F, breaking its daily record by 13 degrees.
Another cold wave sent temperatures down to -6°F in Chicago on the 21st. The Windy City ended up with 21.9 inches of snow for the month. O’Hare Airport reported 6 days with wind gusts exceeding 40 mph this month.
New Orleans was not the only southern city to experience unusual winter weather in December. A deep upper-level low brought snow into Southern California and Nevada on December 17. Las Vegas measured 3.6 inches of snow, the city’s heaviest December snow on record.
Record cold and snow snarled traffic in the Pacific Northwest from December 13-22. The Portland, Oregon, area experienced its heaviest December snowstorm since 1968 thanks to 7-12 inches from December 20-22. Up to 20 inches of snow buried the Willamette Valley, and up to 30 inches blanketed the Columbia River Gorge. Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport reported a record low temperature of 14°F on December 20, a day before picking up a record 3 inches of snow. Heavy snow from this storm and others gave Spokane, Washington, a new December snowfall record (61.5 inches), and a record for any month of the year.
The winter storms also smashed December snowfall records in North Dakota and Wisconsin. Milwaukee accumulated a record 35.3 inches of snow this month, beating out its long-term average by nearly 2 feet.
In contrast, above-normal temperatures dominated the Southeast in December and thermometers rose all the way to 70° F in Washington, D.C., on the 28th.
Hawaii also had its share of extreme weather this month, as a deluge of 6-15 inches drenched Oahu from December 10-14, causing widespread flooding. Hilo on the Big Island ended the month with a startling total of 30.38 inches. Many areas of Hawaii experienced drought during the summer, so the December rains were welcome.
In Alaska, Barrow notched its second “warmest” December, although a mean temperature of 0.5°F for the month would not qualify as “warm” by most people’s standards. Thanks in part to a record cool summer, Anchorage experienced its coldest year since 1999.
For the contiguous United States, this was the coldest year since 1996 and the first year with temperatures below the 30-year mean since 1997, according to preliminary data.
Weatherwise Contributing Editor DOUGLAS LE COMTE is a meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland.