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May-June 2013

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International Weather Highlights 2012: Winter and Summer Extremes

Some of the most extreme wintry weather of the past several decades struck Europe early in the year, only to be followed by extreme heat and dryness in the spring and summer. Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy left a trail of destruction in the Caribbean, while a number of land-falling typhoons created havoc in the western Pacific.

Cold and Snow in Europe

Europeans started out the year experiencing mild winter temperatures and a lack of snow, not unlike many residents of the United States. From a checkbook viewpoint, this meant reduced heating costs, but also a tough time for winter recreation, especially in the Alps.

But the circulation pattern made a drastic change by late January, with the jet stream plunging southward out of the Arctic and a huge dome of cold high pressure parked across Northern Europe. At the same time, a large upper air low pressure system meandered around the eastern Mediterranean during the first week of February. These spelled the ingredients for record cold and snow for large parts of Europe from January 27 through February 19. The cold initially covered Eastern Europe but eventually migrated westward to include France and England.

Temperatures ranged between −45°C to −50°C (−49°F to −58°F) across Eastern Russia during late January, and several areas in Eastern Europe saw readings plunge to −30°C (−22°F). This was the most severe cold spell for France in 25 years, and for Switzerland in 27 years. In Austria, temperatures 10°C (18°F) below average during the first half of the month made this February its coldest since 1986. On February 6, Sweden endured readings as low as −42.8°C (−45°F), the country's coldest since 2001.

The cold and snow peaked during the first week of February, as heavy snow buried towns and villages in Eastern Europe. The bitter cold extended from France to the Black Sea, and from Scandinavia to North Africa. Snowfall of 85–107 cm (33–42 inches) in Bosnia and Herzegovina was the greatest in 120 years. In Serbia, snow trapped thousands of residents in mountain villages. In Italy, the heaviest snowfall in 27 years paralyzed Rome. The cold and snow were blamed for 824 deaths and $800 million in economic losses.

For Australia, early 2012 brought summer floods. Over 200 mm (8 inches) of rain inundated the east central coast of Australia during January 22–28, triggering major flooding in New South Wales. Following additional heavy rains inland, a number of rivers in the region rose to record flood peaks, although major urban flooding was averted.

An extreme multiday rainfall event brought additional flooding to Southeast Australia during February 27 to March 4, when 294 mm (11.57 inches) of rain deluged the Upper Murray catchment. For the Murray-Darling basin, this was the wettest seven-day period on record.

As the La Niña that affected Australia early in the year faded, drier and warmer conditions prevailed from April on. No rain fell at Alice Springs in the 157 days from April 25 to September 28—the longest dry spell in 71 years of record.

Record Spring and Summer Heat

In North America, the United States's neighbor to the north shared in the abnormal warmth experienced during winter, spring, and summer. Winter 2011–2012 was Canada's third warmest, and the country experienced its ninth warmest spring and its warmest summer on record. By the end of August, the North American Drought Monitor depicted D3 intensity (extreme) in parts of Ontario and Quebec.

Europe also experienced unusual spring and summer warmth, especially in the south and east. As in the United States, March brought summer-like warmth to parts of Europe. Norway notched its warmest March on record, while Switzerland measured its second warmest March. Austria, Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Germany experienced their third warmest March.

But not all areas in the world shared the mild weather. Australia had its third coolest and third wettest March on record, and global land-sea temperatures made this the coolest March since 1999. Cool Pacific waters relating in part to a weakening La Niña contributed to the global cooling.

June saw Northern Hemisphere land temperatures reach record warm levels for the fourth month in a row, but you'd have trouble convincing residents in northern Europe, which was dreary and cool. Finland reported its coolest June since 2004, and England notched its wettest June in more than a century of record-keeping. During the soggy June, the United Kingdom experienced separate severe flooding episodes. More than twice the normal rain fell across the United Kingdom, Northern France, and much of Scandinavia this month. The United Kingdom ended up with its coolest summer since 1998. Later in the year, an intense low pressure system brought more flooding as well as damaging winds to the United Kingdom on September 23–25.

While homeowners and tourists donned sweaters in Northern Europe, Southern Europeans sweltered. June temperatures averaged 3–5°C above normal across the Mediterranean countries into Southeast Europe, while rainfall totaled less than one-half of normal. In Spain, this was the fourth warmest June since 1960. To the east, Austria measured its hottest June day on record on June 30, when thermometers rose to 37.7°C (99.9 F) at two locations, including Vienna. Still farther east, parts of Northern Kazakhstan and the Southern Urals and Southern Volga regions of Russia experienced a heat wave during June 10–16 that sent readings soaring to 40°C (104°F) and above. The heat contributed to a growing drought in the important New Lands spring wheat growing region.

Meteorological summer (June-August) ranked as the warmest of record in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Russia, Hungary, and Slovenia sweltered through their second hottest summer.

Heat and dryness elevated fire danger. Already by the end of July, Spain had recorded its worst year for wildfires in more than a decade. The country noted its second driest summer in the last 60 years. Numerous fires also plagued Portugal and Greece.

A heat wave across Southeastern Europe in late August contributed to the near-record summer temperatures. On August 20, the Czech Republic set a record for its highest August temperature (40.4°C). From August 20–27, thermometers neared 38°C (100°F) daily across Romania and Southern Ukraine and southward to Greece, with 41°C (105°F) in scattered locations.

Still farther east, hot and dry June weather in Siberia increased the fire danger, and numerous forest fires later left smoke billowing thousands of kilometers to western portions of North America.

The heat and drought took a heavy toll on crops. Eastern Europe cereal production plunged 21 percent below the prior year's levels, mainly due to the summer drought and heat in Russia and Ukraine. Farther east, with drought extending more than 5,000 kilometers across Kazakhstan and adjacent parts of Russia into Siberia in August, cereal production in the Asian portion of the former Soviet Republics plummeted 32 percent. Kazakhstan production dropped an astounding 50 percent from 2011.

Despite the widespread heat and dryness, one of the biggest weather stories of July was the disastrous flash flood in the Krasnodar region of Russia on July 7. Near the east coast of the Black Sea, torrential rains triggered the worst Russian flood disaster “in living memory” when a wall of water up to seven meters (23 feet) high rushed through three cities and several villages, inundating some 5,000 homes. The death toll of 171 was unprecedented in recent Russian history, and the fact that there was little warning of the impending disaster led to calls for an investigation. Up to 221 mm (8.07 inches) of rain fell in 24 hours.

The two largest droughts in the world in 2012 covered vast areas of North America and the Asian continent. A third drought spread across northeast Brazil during the first half of the year, and was called the worst drought in five decades by Brazilian media. The drought affected 4 million people and the water supplies in 1,100 municipalities, sparking “water wars.”

Heavy Rains and Flooding in East Asia

Extraordinarily heavy rains turned streets into raging rivers across the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu in July. Up to 800 mm (32 inches) of rain inundated the region during July 11–14. Mud slides buried people in their homes, while swollen rivers swept away people, leaving at least 28 dead. Heavy rains during June set the stage for the floods, as over 400 mm (16 inches) of rain drenched the region.

Days later, Tropical Storm Khanan tracked northward into the Korean Peninsula, setting off flooding on July 18–31. Khanan's heavy rains exacerbated ongoing flooding across North Korea, and the death toll across the Korean Peninsula rose to 175.

On July 22, a large thunderstorm complex that swept across the North China Plain triggered torrential rains and flooding in the Beijing area. Around 170 mm (6 inches) of rain pelted the city, while as much as 460 mm (18 inches) inundated areas outside of the capital. Considered the heaviest rain storm in 60 years, the resulting flood left 77 dead in the Beijing area, according to Chinese authorities, turning streets and parking lots into rivers and lakes, and damaging 66,000 homes. As with the Russian flood, residents complained of little or no warning. Coincidentally (or not), the Beijing mayor and deputy mayor lost their jobs shortly after the flood. Torrential rains also hammered Tianjin and Hebei on July 21–22, bringing the total death toll to at least 114 and damage costs to $4.8 billion, making this one of the five costliest weather disasters of the year globally.

Heavy rains in mid-July also triggered flooding in Central China's Hubei Province, destroying homes and forcing some 140,000 people to evacuate or seek aid. Chinese flooding in late August caused $4.6 billion in damages, while flooding on September 7–13 across six provinces damaged or destroyed 100,000 structures and caused $4.92 billion in damage, making this the most expensive weather calamity outside the United States in 2012. Flooding hit Sichuan Province in Southwest China especially hard, with up to 333 mm (13 inches) of rain on September 9–10. Typhoon Damrey made landfall over the east coast of China in early August, damaging 300,000 buildings and causing some $3.28 billion in damage. On August 18, Tropical Storm Kai-Tak led to the evacuation of over 500,000 residents in Eastern China.

Farther south, Cyclone Vicente rapidly gained typhoon strength as it approached the Southern China coast on July 23. The storm increased to “severe” typhoon strength (120 knots) as it approached the coast west of Hong Kong and Macau during the late night hours. Powerful winds and heavy rains lashed Hong Kong as the storm made landfall around 80 km (50 miles) to the west. Rainfall totaled 197 mm (8 inches) at Hong Kong in just 24 hours. Despite the wind and rain, there were no reports of fatalities in Hong Kong, although Vicente was one of the strongest typhoons to affect Hong Kong in 13 years.

Okinawa, an island prefecture in Japan, is located in the middle of typhoon alley, so the residents there are somewhat accustomed to tropical cyclones. However, the 2012 season was crazy even by their standards, as three typhoons tracked directly over the island and several others came close.

Typhoon Bolevan crossed Okinawa on August 26 and later dumped up to 200 mm (8 inches) of rain on both North and South Korea. Bolevan left a trail of destruction across South Korea, taking 19 lives. In North Korea, the storm aggravated flooding that had persisted since July. Some 59 residents died as a result of the storm in North Korea.

Super Typhoon Sanba crossed Okinawa on September 16. Gusts at Kadena AB hit 127 kmh (79 mph), but other parts of the island measured as much as 198 kmh (123 mph). Sanba also went on to strike the Korean peninsula a few days later—the fourth typhoon to strike Korea this year. This was the first time in 50 years that four typhoons had struck the peninsula. Sanba's flooding was blamed for $348 million in damages across South Korea. Earlier, Sanba had intensified to a Category 5 storm on September 13 south of Okinawa, with winds estimated at 280 kmh (175 mph), making this the strongest typhoon in the Western Pacific since Megi in 2010.

On September 29, the third and most damaging typhoon tracked over Okinawa. Super Typhoon Jelawat left over 90 people injured and 180,000 homes without power on the island, where Kadena recorded sustained winds of 137 kmh (85 mph) and gusts to 185 kmh (115 mph).

Jelawat's northeastward trajectory later took the storm over Japan's main island, at one point coming within 90 miles of Tokyo.

South Asian and African Flooding

The southwest monsoon got off to a slow start in June, but cranked up later in the summer. July and August saw major flooding in South Asia, with floodwaters wreaking havoc in India's Uttar Pradesh state by early August, and flooding chasing 85,000 people from their homes in Burma by late August. Flooding in India's northeast (Assam state) took over 100 lives in July.

Major monsoonal flooding struck Pakistan for the third consecutive year, resulting in the globe's deadliest nontyphoon-related flooding of 2012. Torrential rains exceeding 200 mm (8 inches) during September 1–11, with isolated totals up to 481 mm (18.94 inches), triggered the flooding, which caused widespread loss of life and infrastructure. The death toll rose to 571, and damages reached $2.64 billion. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed 15,000 houses.

Summer rains were also excessive across much of sub-Saharan Africa, as the Intertropical Convergence Zone remained steadfastly north of normal across the continent. This same feature contributed to the prolific tropical cyclone season in the Atlantic basin.

Much of Western Africa measured rainfall 40 percent above normal or higher during June-August. Several countries, including Niger and Chad, suffered from severe flooding between July and September. Nigeria was most affected by flooding, with severe floods in 23 states causing 363 fatalities and over $600 million in damages. The water displaced 2.1 million people.

Isaac and Sandy

The Atlantic basin saw a busy tropical season, with 19 named storms. Two storms caused destruction in the Caribbean area. Tropical Storm Isaac struck Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba in late August, while Hurricane Sandy on October 24–26 tore through Jamaica at category 1 strength and across Eastern Cuba at category 3 strength. Sandy's heavy rains drenched Haiti, leaving much of the south submerged.

Isaac made landfall in Southern Haiti early on August 25, packing estimated winds of 55 knots. The storm was blamed for 24 deaths in Haiti and five in the Dominican Republic. Isaac struck Eastern Cuba later in the day.

Sandy one month later took at least 54 lives in Haiti. She flooded, damaged, or destroyed 75,000 homes there, and killed 64,000 head of cattle. Damage reached $750 million. Three lost their lives in the Dominican Republic, and two died in the Bahamas.

Sandy killed one person in Jamaica and damaged thousands of homes. Storm total rainfall reached as high as 713 mm (28.09 inches).

Sandy left 11 dead and damaged over 226,000 homes and other buildings in Eastern Cuba. The cyclone destroyed 17,000 buildings, contributing to an overall $2 billion in damage. In the Bahamas, Sandy took two lives and caused some $700 million in economic losses. In total, the hurricane left 71 people dead in the Caribbean region and, later on, after exiting the United States, one person dead in Canada (Toronto).

Super Typhoon Bopha

Super Typhoon Bopha (known as “Pablo” in the Philippines), the deadliest natural disaster of 2012, was the strongest typhoon of record to hit Mindanao, the southern state in the Philippines. Bopha also made its mark because of its proximity to the equator, being the second farthest south Category 5 cyclone of record in the western Pacific, reaching 7.4 N latitude on December 3. The storm made landfall along the eastern coast of Mindanao on December 3 as a Category 5 storm, packing estimated one-minute sustained winds of 140 knots. The storm devastated the eastern coastal areas of the island.

Bopha was eventually blamed for 1,901 deaths, more than twice that of any other weather disaster this year. Bopha struck one year after Tropical Storm Washi made landfall (December 16, 2011) in the same part of the Philippines, causing over 1,200 deaths and damage to 46,000 houses. Bopha displaced 933,000 people and totally or partially damaged 233,000 houses.

Elsewhere in December, extreme cold again affected Central and Eastern Europe under the influence of a large dome of high pressure. Temperatures dipped to −50°C (−58°F) in parts of Russia in mid-December.

The South Pacific also dealt with a catastrophic cyclone in December, as Cyclone Evan caused massive damage to Samoa. The Category 3 storm struck on December 13, lashing the island with gusts to 210 kmh (130 mph) and a four-meter (13-foot) storm surge. At least 8,000 people sought shelter as the storm destroyed houses and washed away roads and bridges. Evan, which was blamed for 14 deaths, was the worst storm to strike Samoa since Cyclone Val in 1991. Several days later, the storm struck Fiji at Category 4 strength. No fatalities were reported, but winds brought down trees and power lines across the island group.

To the west, in Australia, one of the most significant spring heat waves gripped eastern areas at the end of November. On November 29, a thermometer in Victoria reached a sizzling 45.8°C (114°F!), setting a state spring record.

Global Perspective

The 2012 global (land-ocean) temperature was the 10th highest on record according to the National Climatic Data Center. Above-normal temperatures over the North American and Eurasian continents were offset to some extent by cool waters in the Pacific Ocean. Arctic ice extent reached a new low in August and continued setting records into September, breaking the record 2007 minimum by 18 percent. In contrast, Antarctic ice extent during the cold season growth phase reached a new maximum in September.

Top 10 International Weather Events for 2012

1. Super Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines. The most powerful cyclone of record to strike Mindanao in the Southern Philippines crossed the island on December 3–4. Bopha took 1,901 lives and damaged or destroyed 233,000 houses, making this the deadliest global weather event this year.

2. Eurasian Cold and Snow. One of the most extreme bouts of wintry weather in the past 26 years extended from France to the Black Sea during late January and the first 19 days of February. Near-record low temperatures gripped the region, while heavy snows buried towns and villages in Southeast Europe. The cold and snow were blamed for 824 deaths and $800 million in economic losses.

3. Hurricane Sandy. Before striking the United States, Sandy left a trail of destruction across the Caribbean during October 24–26, taking 71 lives and costing $3.6 billion in damages. The storm most affected Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas.

4. Summer Heat and Drought. High temperatures and low rainfall resulted in severe summer drought across a vast area extending more than 5,000 km (3,000 miles) from Ukraine through Northern Kazakhstan into Siberia. The drought slashed crop production by 50 percent in Kazakhstan and contributed to Siberian wildfires that spread smoke to North America.

5. African Flooding. Persistent heavy rains from July-October caused widespread flooding across sub-Saharan Africa. Affected countries included Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Congo, and, especially, Nigeria, where severe flooding took 363 lives, displaced 2.1 million people, and killed 5.7 million head of livestock.

6. Pakistani Flooding. Torrential monsoon rains in early September triggered major flooding that caused widespread loss of life and damage to infrastructure. The death toll of 571 made this the deadliest noncyclone-related flooding event this year.

7. Beijing Flood. A large complex of thunderstorms brought torrential rains to the Beijing area of China on July 22, swamping homes and streets, and leaving at least 77 dead in the city and 114 dead across the region. These were said to be the heaviest rains to hit the capital in 60 years. Damages of $4.8 billion made this one of the five costliest weather disasters this year.

8. Krasnodar Flood. On July 7, a wall of water up to seven meters (23 feet) high swept through three cities and several villages in Russia's Krasnodar region near the Black Sea, leaving 171 dead. This was Russia's deadliest flood in modern times.

9. Heat Waves Southern and Eastern Europe. Periods of extreme heat affected the Mediterranean countries and Eastern Europe in June, July, and August. Austria measured its highest June temperature on record on the 30th (37.7°C, 100°F). Much of Southeast Europe notched its hottest summer on record, while Russia, Hungary, and Slovenia measured their second hottest summers.

10. Canadian Warmth and Record Low Arctic Ice. Canada measured its warmest March, warmest summer, and warmest three months (July-September), and the Arctic sustained its largest seasonal loss of ice from March to September since the satellite record began in 1979, establishing a record minimum extent in September. (Antarctic ice extent, in contrast, reached a record maximum in September.)

Weatherwise Contributing Editor DOUGLAS LECOMTE is a retired meteorologist formerly with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. 

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