“Is it just me, or does it seem like the weather is getting weirder every year?” It's a common refrain heard among amateur weather enthusiasts and is usually based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. But anyone who paid even scant attention to the weather in 2011 could see that it was a year of extremes. From above-average snowfalls in most states in the United States, to extreme heat, violent tornado outbreaks, and unusual snowfalls, many of us in the United States experienced some type of extreme weather in 2011.
In the article “2011's Billion-Dollar Disasters: Is Climate Change to Blame?”, Weather Underground's Jeff Masters examines the record-breaking 14 billion-dollar weather disasters that occurred last year. The year began with the Groundhog Day's blizzard, which shut down Chicago with more than 20 inches of snow and cost $1.8 billion, making it only the third billion-dollar United States snowstorm since 1980. Spring brought eight separate billion-dollar disasters in a three-month period, as the Plains and the Southeast endured an onslaught of dangerous tornadoes that killed hundreds and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage. Three of the largest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history hit in a six-week period, including the largest and most expensive tornado outbreak in U.S. history—the $10.2 billion-dollar Southeast U.S. Super Outbreak. Shortly after tornado season ended, the warm months brought epic heat that put the summer of 2011 down as the second hottest in U.S. history, just 0.1 degree below the great Dust Bowl summer of 1936. A one-year drought in Texas, the worst in the state's history, cost at least $10 billion, with many regions 20 inches below average in precipitation. The extreme heat of summer then gave way to fall, and Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee combined to wreak billions of dollars worth of damage to the United States.
While it might be easier to attribute the unusual number of costly weather events in 2011 to natural climate variability, Masters argues that there is evidence that climate could be to blame. Stanley David Gedzelman makes a similar comment in his article, “Fall Snowliage: Photographing an Unusual October Storm.” In the piece, Gedzelman examines a rare but photographically spectacular October snow event that wreaked havoc across the East Coast and mid-Atlantic while providing a showcase event for those concerned that climate change might be bringing more severe weather to the forefront of the American meteorological construct.
David A. Robinson also examines the unusually severe weather of 2011 in his 2010–2011 snow report. In the piece, Robinson notes that most stations reported above-average snowfalls for the season, with only a small number reporting below-average snowfall.
As I write this article, 2011 is winding to a close, and in retrospect there's not much question that this year was a time of extremes. We have yet to see what 2012 will bring, but if climate change does, in fact, play a role in the increase in extreme weather events, we can only hope it will bring more data that will help meteorologists better understand our climate.