Wet and cool could sum up the weather in 2009 for many areas. Although the United States experienced a relatively tranquil hurricane and tornado season, extratropical storms took up the slack and brought flooding to many parts of the country. Unusually cool or soggy weather persisted for much of the year, especially in the Midwest and South. Severe wintry weather struck the country early in 2009, as well as late in the year.
A Second Consecutive Year with Severe Wintry Weather
Heavy snow early in January, followed by heavy rain and sudden snow melt, led to extensive flooding in western Washington and parts of western Oregon. By January 7, floodwaters forced a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 south of Seattle to close because of flooding from the Chehalis River. Several feet of water covered the roadway. Because the main east-west mountain passes were also closed, the flooding from the Chehalis River essentially cut off access to the Puget Sound and Seattle area.
“The cold wave that struck the central and eastern United States during mid-January was one of the most severe in recent years”
Like the winter before, widespread cold and snow affected many parts of the nation, and not just the lower 48. In Alaska, brutal cold gripped the state from late December 2008 through January 11, 2009. Anchorage temperatures climbed no higher than −10°F during the first week of the year. Fairbanks' minimum temperature dipped to at least −40°F every day from January 1–11. Its highest temperature from January 1–8 was −23°F, on January 1.
The cold air affecting Alaska eventually progressed to the lower 48. The cold wave that struck the central and eastern United States during mid-January was one of the most severe in recent years. As bitter cold invaded the Plains on January 12, blizzard conditions struck North Dakota. The next day, a huge 1044-mb high pressure system centered over Saskatchewan transported subzero cold south to Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Temperatures plummeted to −30°F and lower in the Dakotas and −20°F in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
On January 15, a 1046-mb high over Iowa spread the cold south and east, with frigid conditions stretching all the way into New England. Bismarck, North Dakota, notched a reading of −44°F, breaking its daily record by eight degrees. This was its lowest temperature since 1950. Temperatures stayed below zero all day in Chicago, and the maximum temperature at O'Hare Airport only made it to −1°F, while the minimum reading dropped to −13°F. The thermometer dropped to −29°F at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, setting an all-time record low. Wind chill temperatures hit −58°F in Wisconsin.
The subzero readings extended to the Northeast by January 15, with temperatures dropping to −20°F or lower in northern New Hampshire and northern New York.
The cold wave continued on January 16, with Concord, New Hampshire, measuring −24°F. In Caribou, Maine, the minimum temperature of −37°F not only shattered the daily record, but broke the monthly record by four degrees. Elsewhere in northern Maine, a recently established weather station in Aroostook County recorded a low of −50°F, setting an all-time record for the state.
Still another major weather event took place in January 2009, when warm air overrunning cold air at the surface resulted in a massive ice storm across the mid-South on January 26–27, resulting in 1.3 million residences and businesses losing power. An inch or more of ice covered surfaces from northern Arkansas and extreme southern Missouri into Kentucky and other parts of the Ohio Valley. With the numerous downed power lines and trees, it would be over a week before utility companies could fully restore power. The freezing rain reportedly caused more than 50 fatalities.
Not every state experienced wintry weather in January. Downtown Los Angeles, California, set a record for the most consecutive January days with readings of 80°F or higher, with the streak reaching 10 days (January 11–20). The thermometer climbed to a summer-like 88°F on the 12th.
Caption: Most of California experienced less than one-half its normal precipitation in January, increasing fears that the state would endure a third year of below-normal rain and snow, and continuing low reservoir levels.
Drought in California and Texas
A longer-term concern was the ongoing drought in California. Most of the state experienced less than one-half its normal precipitation in January, increasing fears that the state would endure a third year of below-normal rain and snow, and continuing low reservoir levels. At the end of the month, state reservoir storage stood at 62 percent of normal.
Thankfully, Pacific storms returned in February, with major storms dumping heavy rain and snow on the state from February 13–17 and February 22–23. This led to substantial improvements to reservoir levels. Shasta Reservoir water storage made its greatest January-February improvement in 16 years. Additional storms extending all the way into May offered additional boosts to water supplies. Nevertheless, cumulative snowfall for the season never completely made up for the dry January, and rain and snow totals ended up somewhat below normal for the third consecutive year. The deficient precipitation contributed to critical water shortages for some Central Valley farmers.
La Niña developed by winter and quickly faded early in the year. La Niñas are associated with dry winters across the southern United States, and this held especially true for the southern Plains this year. Texas experienced its driest winter (December-February) in 114 years of record-keeping, while Oklahoma had its eighth driest winter. Conditions were especially dry in south-central Texas, which includes the cities of Austin and San Antonio. The September-February period ranked as the driest such period in 114 years in south-central Texas. As a result, the late February U.S. Drought Monitor depicted at least D1 intensity drought from southwestern Kansas into Texas, with D4, the most severe category, over south-central Texas, the only D4 area in the nation at that time.
The drought hit Texas farmers and ranchers hard. By early March, state economists calculated costs approaching $1 billion for farmers and ranchers. On March 6, Texas Governor Perry requested disaster relief assistance from the federal government for drought-stricken farmers. In early June, during the winter wheat harvest, USDA rated nearly one-half of the crop (47 percent) in very poor condition, indicative of major production losses.
Notwithstanding a number of cold outbreaks and several snowstorms, temperatures were above average for much of the country in February. Highlights included precipitation two to four times average in the northern Plains, setting the stage for another spring of significant flooding. Rain and snow melt triggered another bout of flooding in western Washington. Meanwhile, an early-month cold wave in the East dropped temperatures into the teens in northern Florida (February 5) and down to 33°F in West Palm Beach, while subzero cold in New England burst pipes and kept insurance claims adjusters busy.
Another Wet Spring
Winter did not quit in March, with a number of memorable snowstorms. A major storm from February 28-March 4 dropped several feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada in California, including 86 inches at the Kirkwood ski resort. On March 1–2, the Mid-Atlantic states finally got their first significant snow of the season; the 6 to 8 inches that fell in the Washington, D.C., area was blamed for numerous car accidents. A vicious blizzard in the last days of the month dropped more than two feet of snow in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota.
Several bouts of rain in spring finally put an end to most of the remnants of the drought that had been plaguing parts of the Southeast since 2007. But in the Midwest and northern Plains, too much snow and rain brought another spring of noteworthy flooding.
By March 11, rivers had escaped their banks in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and New York. By late March, the Red River of the North was in flood from near Grand Forks, North Dakota, south to Fargo and beyond. On March 27, the Red River at Fargo reached 40.48 feet; flood stage is 18 feet.
Top 10 U.S. Weather Events 2009
Torrential rains over the Southeast during September led to the worst flooding in recent history across the Atlanta area. The floodwaters left hundreds homeless and damaged or destroyed 20,000 buildings.
A massive ice storm took down trees and power lines across the mid-South on January 26–27, leaving 1.3 million customers without power.
Heavy snow, rain, and rapid snow melt led to extensive river flooding across western Washington in early January, shutting down major highways and virtually cutting off the Seattle area.
An extensive cold wave spread dangerous, subzero cold from the Midwest to the Northeast from January 12–16, setting a number of all-time minimum temperature records.
Drought in Texas resulted in billions of dollars in crop damage. Record summer heat and dryness caused the worst drought in over a half-century in south-central Texas, leading to numerous water restrictions.
For the second consecutive year, heavy rain and snow caused widespread flooding in the Midwest in spring 2009, resulting in major planting delays.
Abnormally cool and wet weather extended from the Midwestern states into the Northeast, nearly resulting in a “year without a summer.” The Midwest experienced its coolest July in over a century.
October storms over many parts of the nation, including California, Colorado, the Plains, Midwest, and South, triggered flooding, snarled traffic, and led to major crop harvest delays. The contiguous United States experienced the wettest October on record and the third coolest October.
Tropical Storm Ida came ashore in southern Alabama on November 10 but caused more damage days later as a fierce nor'easter that devastated mid-Atlantic beaches.
An historic nor'easter dumped up to 2 feet of snow from North Carolina to Rhode Island on December 19, setting records from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia as the biggest December snow storm in more than a century.
Flooding continued into April, closing many roads in North Dakota. The swollen river expanded to a width of seven miles north of Grand Forks in early April, creating a monster lake. Precautions taken before the flooding made a big difference this year, since major cities avoided the kind of inundations seen in previous years, such as the flooding that overwhelmed Cedar Rapids in 2008.
However, the spring wetness in the Midwest did have a lasting impact on crops, greatly delaying planting. By May 3, only one-third of the corn crop had been planted, versus the five-year average of 50 percent that is planted by this date.
In contrast, the drought that persisted from the autumn of 2008 into the spring of 2009 in the southern Plains took a big chunk out of the U.S. winter wheat crop. Hard red winter wheat production declined from 1.9 billion bushels in 2008 to 1.5 billion bushels in 2009, a drop of around 20 percent.
An April freeze also factored into the reduced wheat output. In fact, winter just refused to go away in April. Near the start of the wintry month, a blizzard raged across the Plains states, and as much as 19 inches buried South Dakota. Following the storm, record cold descended upon the Plains. Valentine, Nebraska, reported 6°F. Western Oklahoma and western Kansas saw the mercury dip into the teens. Temperatures dropped below freezing as far south as central Texas.
In addition to flooding and freezing, April featured fire and heat. Before needed mid-month rains could fall, wildfires burned more than 200,000 acres and destroyed more than 300 buildings in Oklahoma and Texas. Record heat also occurred from California to New England between April 20–28. Riverside, California, experienced 103°F on April 20, and Sioux City, Iowa, registered a 92°F reading on April 23. Concord, New Hampshire, saw 90°F on April 25. Portland, Maine, broke its monthly record with 92°F on April 28. This heat wave would end up as one of the hottest of the year in the Midwest and Eastern seaboard, exceeding the heat experienced for much of the summer to come.
“Abnormally cool weather persisted over the Northern Plains”
Several bouts of torrential rains also hit various parts of the country, including eastern Texas on April 17–18 and southern Oklahoma and northern Texas on April 29–30. Up to 1 foot of rain fell over southern Oklahoma in 24 hours. Earlier in the month, drenching rains struck the Southeast during the first two days of the month, putting a lid on the long-term drought in most areas, but sending rivers over their banks. From March 26 to April 2, Tallahassee, Florida, totaled 11.70 inches of rain. Groundwater in the Atlanta area rose to normal levels for the first time since the spring of 2007.
The Year Without a Summer?
May was a confusing weather month, with several other out-of-season weather events. Heavy rains drenched the Southwest, seeming to jumpstart the summer monsoon, and misleading some forecasters into believing the region was headed for a wet summer monsoon season. Record rains abruptly ended the Florida Peninsula's dry season, terminating a drought resulting from near-record low November-April rainfall. Abnormally cool weather persisted over the Northern Plains, presaging the summer ahead, while abnormal heat baked much of the West. Flooding persisted from northeastern Texas to Pennsylvania, as well as parts of the Northern Plains, while several bouts of severe weather battered the eastern half of the nation. Overnight on May 13–14, a squall line stretched from Dallas, Texas, to Buffalo, New York, resulting in numerous severe weather reports.
“Rainfall exceeded normal for four consecutive months”
One of the big weather stories of 2009 was the persistent cool weather extending from the northern and central Plains through the Great Lakes region into the Northeast during June through August. A circulation pattern more typical of winter took hold, with upper level troughs digging southward into the central and eastern states, and the jet stream diving southward from Canada.
June temperatures averaged three to five degrees below normal from Minnesota westward to Montana, and one to two degrees below normal from the Great Lakes into New England.
But July was one for the record books, as a vast extent of the nation measured temperatures well below the norm. The mercury averaged two to six degrees below normal from Montana to Maine and from the Great Lakes southward to northern Mississippi. Temperatures dropped into the 30s and 40s in places that seldom see such readings in midsummer. International Falls, Minnesota, notched a record minimum of 35°F on both July 12 and 13, and reported its coolest July on record. The week of July 13–19 was the coolest such period on record in Iowa, averaging 7.6°F below normal, and temperatures dropped as low as 42°F. Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa recorded their coolest July in 114 years, and the Midwest as a whole measured its coolest July. Many cities also broke records, with Madison, Wisconsin reporting its coolest July since records began in 1869.
In New York City, Central Park failed to make it to 85°F from June 1 through July 16. Simply put, this had never happened before. In Boston, every day except one registered below-normal temperatures from June 8 through July 16. However, Boston's maximum temperature of 95°F on August 18 meant that summer was not totally AWOL this year. To the west, Chicago reported its fifth-coolest summer since 1942 and only four days in the 90s, three of which occurred in late June.
Alaska often marches to a different drummer, and July was no exception. Fairbanks measured a record 91°F on July 8, breaking the daily record by three degrees. This was the city's first 90-degree day since August 5, 1994.
There was no talk of a year without a summer in the southern Plains. A heat wave sent temperatures deep into triple-digit territory, the mercury soaring to 117°F in western Oklahoma on July 10.
August temperatures averaged 1 to 4°F below normal from Indiana to Montana, but readings managed to rise to slightly above-normal levels in the Northeast this month. From New Jersey to Maine, rainfall exceeded normal for four consecutive months: May, June, July, and August. It was the wettest meteorological summer (June-August) on record at Portland, Maine; Concord, New Hampshire; and Albany, New York.
Caption: A powerful nor'easter ensured that the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States were cloaked in white on the first day of Northern Hemisphere winter in 2009. This image from NASA's Terra satellite shows the Chesapeake Bay area on December 21.
Drought in the Upper Midwest, Texas, and the Southwest
The Midwest did not entirely escape drought this summer, with below-normal rainfall from May-July aggravating the long-term drought in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. Although heavy rains eased drought on August 19–20, the Wisconsin governor asked the USDA to issue a disaster declaration for 41 counties suffering from drought. Some corn had already been chopped for silage due to lack of development.
Much farther south, record heat and warmth worsened the drought in south-central and southern Texas to the point that August conditions ranked as the worst since the mini-Dust Bowl days of 1956. In Austin, July temperatures were not only the hottest on record for that month, but the hottest of any month going back to 1854. July rainfall at Austin registered a pitiful 0.25 inches. San Antonio also experienced its hottest month in July, when a record 22 days reached triple-digit heat. The drought devastated crops, and low reservoir and ground water levels resulted in severe water restrictions. Total damage to agriculture statewide has been estimated at $4 billion.
Cooling rains by late August started to ease the drought. More than four inches fell locally over South Texas from August 28–31, causing an uncharacteristically emotional response from the NWS office in Brownsville as they described it as “Rain, glorious rain.” A more widespread deluge from September 9–13 broke the back of the drought, and widespread rains in October further reduced drought.
In the Southwest, the unusually heavy rains that doused the region in May turned out to be a false prelude to the coming summer thunderstorm season. The Southwest region recorded its fourth driest August on record, with Arizona measuring its third driest June-August in over a century. Below-normal rains in September and October further aggravated drought in Arizona.
Severe weather and flooding hit a number of locations in August, with a water spout moving onshore and damaging several structures in Galveston, Texas, on August 30, a severe thunderstorm downing over 100 trees in New York City's Central Park on August 19, and a deluge inundating Louisville, Kentucky, on August 4.
September proved that you do not need a tropical storm to trigger major flooding. An upper-air disturbance helped to set off torrential rains in the South from September 19–22, with the Atlanta area seeing some of its worst flooding in modern times. Atlanta recorded 6.46 inches of rain on September 19–21, but 24-hour totals reached as high as 11.80 inches in nearby Douglasville, Georgia. Some locations just west of Atlanta picked up 20 inches of rain. The deluge led to major flooding in the Atlanta area. Water rose up to the roofs of homes, and parts of the Interstates were shut down. The floodwaters left hundreds homeless, and damaged or destroyed 20,000 buildings. Georgia damage estimates exceeded one-half billion dollars.
An October to Remember
An active storm track coupled with a wintry onslaught of cold air out of Canada made this another month for the record books. When all was said and done, 2009 saw the nation's wettest October in 115 years of records and the third coldest. Virtually every part of the country measured above-normal rain or snow, the main exceptions being Arizona, Florida, and the mid-Atlantic coast. Much of the Mississippi Valley ended up with more than eight inches of rain.
On October 9–10, a record cold wave for this time of year plunged southward from Canada into the Plains, reaching Kansas by October 10th and Texas by October 11. Temperatures dipped into the teens in Nebraska and Colorado and single digits in Montana. A high-pressure center plummeted southward into the Upper Midwest on October 13. Damaging six- to eight-inch snowfall amounts toppled trees and power lines in eastern North Dakota on October 14–15.
A coastal storm dumped heavy rain from Virginia to New England on October 15–18, while record early snows blanketed Pennsylvania and other parts of the Northeast.
Caption: NOAA rainfall map for Georgia for September 2009 shows the extent of rainfall that led to severe flooding in Atlanta.
“The floodwaters left hundreds homeless”
A large Pacific storm also more typical of winter than early autumn slashed the California area on October 13–14. Three- to seven-inch rainfall amounts were common across California, with up to 10 to 16 inches over the coastal mountains. Numerous wind gusts exceeded 50 mph, including a gust of 62 mph at San Francisco on October 13. San Francisco measured its highest October 24-hour rainfall total with 2.48 inches on October 13. For the state, this was likely the most intense October storm since 1962.
To the east, a deep upper-level low set off a major snow storm over Colorado and the High Plains during October 28–30. Over three feet of snow buried the mountains west of Denver and Boulder. Meanwhile, heavy rains led to flooding in Arkansas, Louisiana, and eastern Texas from October 29–30. One to eight inches of rain spread over the area.
Numerous October rainfall records were established in Mississippi. Five to 14 inches were widespread across the state. Farther north, Saint Louis recorded its coldest October since 1987. In Georgia, Athens' September-October rainfall totaled 19 inches. Nothing in the record books even comes close. Atlanta's total for this period of 17.65 inches was the city's highest since 1888.
Florida was the place to be to escape the unseasonable cold, with Miami even setting a record for the hottest October on record (82.4°F). Fort Lauderdale notched its driest October with a paltry 0.73 inches.
More Storms Close Out the Year
November was relatively mild and dry, with some notable exceptions. Flooding continued across the Mississippi Valley, with moderate-to-major river flooding from Texas to Iowa and Illinois. Heavy rains lashed Hawaii from November 13–15, easing drought but causing flooding. An upper-level low triggered rainfall amounts as high as 21.33 inches over Kauai.
Meanwhile, storms battered the Pacific Northwest, with monthly precipitation totals exceeding eight inches from western Oregon into western Washington. Winds along the Oregon coast gusted as high as 89 mph during an intense storm on November 16. Heavy snow fell over the mountains, and several rivers escaped their banks.
But Tropical Storm Ida and her precocious descendant was the big story this month. One of only two tropical storms to strike the United States this year (Claudette hit northwest Florida in August), Ida was a late bloomer, making landfall over the southern coast of Alabama on November 10. She dumped around four inches of rain along the Gulf Coast, and her winds gusted to around 48 mph. She flooded some coastal roads but left little damage in her wake. An upper level trough picked up the storm and carried it northeastward to southern Georgia on November 11 and then near the coast of North Carolina on November 12, where she morphed into a full-blown nor'easter. Dubbed “Nor'Ida” by The Weather Channel, the storm caused far more damage as an extratropical storm than a tropical storm, as the low pressure system lashed the Mid-Atlantic coast from North Carolina to New Jersey with high waves, heavy rains, and strong winds for several days. The waves caused major beach erosion, and the rains and high surf flooded numerous coastal roads.
Another nor'easter struck the Northeast on November 27–28. Winds on the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire gusted to 137 mph, the highest gust observed since March 21, 2008. Two feet of snow covered the mountain top.
A record early snow fell over coastal Texas on December 4, as cold high pressure centered over Oklahoma combined with a strong upper-level trough digging southward into the southern Plains to create conditions ripe for abnormal weather. The local forecast office noted that snow “has never fallen this early across southeast Texas.” The previous record snow was on December 10, 2008, just one year earlier.
A major storm system hammered large parts of the nation from December 7–10. In California on December 7, it dumped up to four feet of snow on the Sierra before dropping more than 20 inches of snow on the Flagstaff area in Arizona. Tracking from Colorado on December 8 to Michigan on December 9, the deep low pressure system spread eight to 16 inches of snow over a broad swath from Nebraska to Michigan, creating blizzard conditions on the Plains. Subzero temperatures at Denver with wind resulted in wind chills below −35°F. Frigid arctic air expanded southward and eastward behind the storm, with Redding, California, registering a minimum temperature of 16°F on December 9. This not only shattered the daily record, but set the record for all-time low temperature, an amazing feat given (astronomical) winter had not even begun. Seventeen deaths were blamed on the storm.
On December 10, with the low over Quebec, the lake-effect snow machine cranked up, and lengthy snow bands emanated from Lakes Erie and Ontario. Up to 18 inches of snow fell over western New York. The storm system was also blamed for widespread severe thunderstorms over the Gulf Coast on December 8–9 as the intense cold front moved through the region.
That same cold front later backtracked northward to the Gulf Coast area and helped bring flooding rains to the Gulf region from December 14–15. New Orleans recorded 8.81 inches of rain at that time, enabling the airport to set a record for the wettest month on record (21.20 inches) with the month only half over. The final total for December exceeded two feet (25.43 inches).
The Northern Hemisphere circulation pattern continued to sport a severe wintry pattern, with the Arctic Oscillation reaching extreme negative levels, and the wild weather continued.
Low pressure in the eastern Gulf of Mexico on December 18 deepened and tracked to the Cape Hatteras area on December 19, setting the stage for a record December snow storm in the Mid-Atlantic region. Heavy snow blanketed the region from western North Carolina to southeastern New England, with the 16- to 23-inch totals in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore region shattering previous records for December snowstorms. In fact, the 16.4-inch total at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport not only broke the single-storm record for the month, but also broke the record for December monthly snowfall as well. Philadelphia's 23.2-inch total was its greatest snowfall since the January 1996 storm, and the Hamptons recorded two feet.
“The storm caused far more damage as an extratropical storm than a tropical storm”
The timing of the storm for retailers was terrible, as the Saturday before Christmas is one of the major shopping days of the year. Federal government offices closed on the following Monday, while school children got to stay home all week in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Still a third major storm system wreaked havoc across large areas of the country in December, as low pressure over Oklahoma on December 23 moved slowly to northeast Texas on December 24 and then deepened and tracked northward to Iowa on Christmas Day. The storm stalled over Iowa for the next 24 hours and then weakened. Wind-whipped snow spread from Oklahoma to the Dakotas from December 23–26, with blizzard conditions across much of the central and northern Plains from December 24–26. Oklahoma City's total of 14.1 inches on December 24 established an all-time snowfall record. Officials declared a state of emergency in South Dakota, Texas, and Oklahoma. Storm-total snowfall of 12 to 18 inches extended from eastern Nebraska to Minnesota, with some locations seeing over 24 inches. Thousands of households lost power, and at least 21 deaths were blamed on slippery roads. On a lighter note, the three inches of snow that fell on Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas on December 24, providing residents with a rare white Christmas, was the first measureable snow ever recorded on Christmas Eve in the area.
El Niño conditions that had developed during the summer and intensified in the fall likely contributed to the soggy conditions late in the year along the Gulf, but it is unclear how much of the blame for the cold and snow should go to El Niño. Hemispheric circulation patterns related to the negative Arctic Oscillation in October and December certainly played a role, and may have overshadowed the El Niño impacts to some degree.
Thanks to the persistent wet conditions, numerous locations either set records for the wettest year or came close. In Georgia, Atlanta recorded its wettest year since 1948 and second-wettest year on record. Saint Louis, Missouri, notched its fifth-wettest year, while in Arkansas, Little Rock experienced its wettest year, with a remarkable 81.79 inches, nearly 30 inches above normal. Farther north, Midwestern farmers were still struggling to finish the corn harvest in late December.
Weatherwise Contributing Editor DOUGLAS LE COMTE is a meterologist at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland.