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May-June 2014

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U.S. Weather Highlights 2013: Endless Winter, Tornadoes, Flash Floods, More Winter

The year was one of stark contrasts with 2012: a seemingly endless parade of winter storms versus 2012's mild and snow-starved winter, a cold and snowy spring versus 2012's warmest spring on record, and a summer with widespread flash flooding versus 2012's heat and drought. Other highlights included the September flood disaster in the Colorado foothills, the October Plains blizzard, the historic tornado outbreaks in May and November, and the worsening Western drought.

The 2012-2013 winter actually got off to a slow start. Chicago, for example, measured its latest first snow (January 25) on record. But the pattern soon changed, and Mother Nature made up for lost time.

Widespread snow persisted from February on, continuing into spring. February saw three epic winter storms accompanied by true blizzard conditions. The nor'easter that hammered Long Island, New York, and southern New England on February 8-9 dumped over two feet of snow from the north shore of Long Island through southern Maine. In Massachusetts, Boston's 24.9 inches was the city's fifth biggest snowfall, while Worcester's 28.7 inches was that city's third greatest snowfall. Truly monumental snowfalls of 32 inches and more buried central and southern Connecticut. In New Haven County, a 36-inch total exceeded the state's all-time 24-hour snowfall record.

Later in the month, two historical winter storms paralyzed travel across the southern and central Plains. The February 21-22 storm brought up to a foot of snow to Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Mexico, and Nebraska. For much of Kansas, this was one of the greatest snowfalls of modern times. For Kansas City, Missouri, the 9.2 inches made this its fifth highest February total on record and the most snowfall since 1993. The 14.2 inches at Wichita, Kansas, was that city's biggest snow in 50 years. Up to three inches of sleet covered the ground in Missouri, and winds gusted to 72 mph in El Paso, Texas.

Only days later, another low pressure area tracking across the southern Plains focused its heaviest snows and fiercest winds on the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma. The February 24-25 storm dumped 19 inches of snow on Amarillo, Texas, the city's greatest February daily snowfall and the second largest snowfall for any calendar day. The February 26 snow depth at Amarillo of 17 inches broke its all-time record. Blizzard conditions on February 25 shut down travel on all roads in both the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.

Meteorological winter, defined as December-February, actually saw above-normal temperatures across the eastern third of the country, thanks to early mild weather, allowing the winter to rank as the 19th mildest. Still, this was a big contrast to the previous winter, which ranked as number three (January-March 2012 ranked as the warmest).

Two major winter storms also whacked a good part of the nation during March, the first dumping 10 inches of snow on Chicago and causing the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights. The next day, over 20 inches buried parts of western Virginia and West Virginia, with similar amounts on March 7-8 in eastern Massachusetts. The second major storm this month covered Springfield, Illinois, with its heaviest snows of record (18.5 inches) on March 24-25 and left Saint Louis with its greatest snowfall (12.7 inches) in 31 years.

April is supposed to be a spring month, but not in 2013. An enormous winter storm travelled from the Great Basin to the Great Lakes on April 8-12, dumping over a foot of snow from Wyoming to Minnesota. In South Dakota, the 28-inch total at Rapid City was simply that city's greatest snowfall of record. The storm also brought large hail and severe weather to the Plains and South.

Major snowstorms struck the nation even into May, with the High Plains storm on May 1-3 setting late-season records from the Plains to the Upper Midwest. This was, in short, the greatest May snow on record for the Upper Midwest. The 14 inches in Rochester, Minnesota, for example, shattered the previous May record of two inches. Up to 18 inches covered Wisconsin, setting a new state record.

Even Memorial Day weekend was not immune to winter's wrath. The near-nor'easter that struck upstate New York and New England on May 25-26 left unprecedented snow totals for so late in the season in Vermont and the New York Adirondacks. The road to the summit of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts (3,491 feet) closed for two days as crews cleared the snow and downed trees. In Vermont, Mount Mansfield (4,393 feet) snowfall totaled 13.2 inches, the latest one-foot-plus total on record. Whiteface Mountain, New York (4,867 feet), unofficially recorded 36 inches—by far the greatest total so late in the season.

Not surprisingly, heavy rain and snow melt led to major spring flooding along the Missouri-Mississippi River Basin, setting a number of records. The Des Plaines River in Illinois reached 10.9 feet (flood stage five feet) on April 19, breaking its all-time mark. Over five inches of rain on April 17-18 triggered major flooding in the Chicago area. The wet weather greatly delayed crop planting across the Midwest this spring, but farmers managed to harvest near record corn and soybean crops regardless this fall. However, April freezes along with persistent drought in the western High Plains cut the hard red winter wheat crop by 26%. Farther west, deficient rain and snow led to continued drought for much of the West, setting the stage for historic wildfires.

January and May Tornadoes

Already in January, a deep upper air trough triggered a massive squall line that resulted in over 800 severe weather reports on the 29th and 30th across the East and South. An EF3 tornado in Georgia damaged or destroyed 363 homes. Twisters also hit Tennessee and Alabama. On March 18-20, severe weather in the Northeast and Southeast, including a derecho sweeping across the Southeast, inflicted $2.5 billion damage. On April 7-11, severe weather nationwide led to $1.6 billion in losses.

The costliest and most damaging weather event of the year was the multistate tornado outbreak of May 18-22, remembered for the EF5 tornado that tore across the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on May 20, causing massive destruction in Moore, Oklahoma. The twister destroyed 1,196 homes and damaged another 2,093, causing a scene reminiscent of a war zone. The death toll, at 24, could have been much higher given the destruction. Overshadowed but not to be forgotten was the EF4 tornado that hit Shawnee, Oklahoma, to the northeast of Oklahoma City the day before. This storm took two lives and damaged or destroyed over 300 homes. Total costs for the severe weather outbreak totaled some $3.8 billion, making this the costliest weather event of the year.

Another historic outbreak took place only days later, as tornadoes swept across the Plains from May 26-31. Some 86 tornadoes left 27 dead. Twisters struck the Saint Louis, Missouri, metro area and, once again, the Oklahoma City area. The El Reno tornado west of Oklahoma City on May 31 at 2.6 miles wide was the largest tornado ever recorded, and the first tornado to claim the lives of storm chasers (three in one vehicle and one in another). The storm's size, ferocity, and erratic path contributed to the deaths. Although officially rated an EF3 based on damage surveys, Doppler radar radar-measured winds approaching 300 mph (EF5). Total economic losses came to $2.3 billion.

For the contiguous United States, this was the coldest spring (March-May) since 1996. Spring snow cover was the eighth largest on record. The Upper Midwest had its wettest spring in 119 years and its eighth coldest. The Southeast could also boast of its eighth coldest spring. Statewide, Iowa measured a soggy 16.4 inches of rain, breaking a record that had stood since 1892. A hot May out West mitigated the nationwide cold, but the United States still measured its 38th coldest spring—a sharp contrast with 2012's number-one heat ranking.

The year saw wild gyrations in Alaska's temperatures. April, in particular, will be remembered for its bone-chilling cold, as Fairbanks averaged just 18°F for the month, which is 14.5°F below normal. May temperatures there averaged 5.1°F below normal, as the state noted its 20th coldest May and 14th wettest.

Top 10 U.S. Weather Events 2013

The weather event rankings consider the following: rarity (once every decade, 100 years?), geographical extent (local? regional? national?), monetary impact (costs exceeding $100 million? $1 billion?), duration (days, weeks, months?), and socioeconomic impacts (fatalities, injuries, power outages, transportation, evacuations, etc.).

1. Moore, Oklahoma, Tornado (May 20)

The EF5 tornado that tore through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City left 24 dead, injured 237, and destroyed 1,196 homes. This was part of a multistate outbreak on May 18-22 that cost $3.75 billion.

2. El Reno, Oklahoma, Tornado (May 31)

Part of a multiday storm outbreak that caused $2 billion in damage, the EF3 that traveled through the western suburb of Oklahoma City was the largest tornado ever observed (2.6 miles) and it took eight lives, including four tornado chasers.

3. Boulder, Colorado, Flash Flood (September 9-16)

A deluge that dumped more than nine inches of precipitation in 24 hours and 14 inches in four days on the Colorado foothills unleashed furious flooding on Boulder and surrounding towns that damaged or destroyed 1,800 homes, washed out hundreds of miles of roads, and cost some $2 billion.

4. Northeast Blizzard (February 8-9)

The epic nor'easter dumped 20-30 inches of snow on Long Island, New York; central and eastern Massachusetts; southern New Hampshire; and southern Maine, and three feet of snow on south-central Connecticut, making this one of the strongest blizzards on record for southern and eastern New England.

5. Northern Plains Blizzard (October 4-7)

One of the most extreme early winter blizzards of record for any region in the United States dumped up to four feet of snow on the Black Hills of South Dakota, lashed the region with 70-mph winds, and killed thousands of cattle. The storm also brought tornadoes to Nebraska, heavy rains and flooding to the Ohio Valley, and damaging winds to the Northeast.

6. Western and High Plains Drought (January-December)

Low snow pack combined with dry and hot weather set the stage for massive Western wildfires, including Colorado's most damaging fire on record, California's third largest fire, and the Arizona blaze that killed 19 firefighters. Spring drought plus April freezes cut the winter wheat crop by 26%, and California ended up with its driest year on record.

7. Central United States Winter Storm (February 19-24)

A vast storm brought snow from California to Maine, dumping over 12 inches on Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Up to 22 inches of snow piled up in Kansas, where Wichita measured its heaviest snowfall (14.2 inches) in 50 years. The storm also brought heavy rains to the Southeast.

8. Plains to Great Lakes Winter Storm (April 8-12)

Another enormous storm system tracked from the Great Basin to the Great Lakes, dropping over a foot of snow from Wyoming to Minnesota, including 28 inches at Rapid City, South Dakota—an all-time record. The storm also pummeled the Plains and South with large hail and tornadoes and spread severe thunderstorms from Texas to Pennsylvania.

9. Plains to Northeast Winter Storm (February 24-28)

The second major winter storm this month tracked from the southern Plains to the Great Lakes, blanketing at least 11 states with one foot or more of snow, setting February snowfall records in northern Texas (19 inches in Amarillo) and bringing whiteout conditions to Denver, Colorado.

10. Midwest Tornado Outbreak (November 17)

One of the nation's three most damaging November outbreaks on record resulted in 74 tornadoes across the Ohio Valley, including the EF4 that destroyed large parts of Washington, Illinois.

Summer Heat and Flooding

June rainfall set records over the Eastern Seaboard well before the month even reached the halfway mark.

Tropical Storm Andrea made landfall over the northwest Florida Peninsula on June 6. Andrea hammered Florida with heavy rains, high surf, flooding, and at least eight tornadoes. The storm tracked northward along the eastern coast, bringing torrential rains up through the Carolinas and northward into New England. Only days later, a deep upper air trough in concert with a frontal system dumped record-setting rains all along the eastern coast. On June 10, more than five inches of rain fell in 24 hours in Maryland's Montgomery County, while a rare tornado set down in Baltimore, Maryland, and in Newark, Delaware. New York City had accumulated over seven inches of rain by June 11.

Despite the early start to the tropical storm season and forecasts for an active season, no other storms made landfall this year. Although there were 13 named storms in the Atlantic Basin, only two grew to hurricane strength. The last time that happened was 1982. In fact, there is something of a hurricane drought going on, as the last time a major (Category 3) storm struck the continental United States was in 2005 (Winnie). Of course, Superstorm Sandy taught us that you do not need a major hurricane to cause catastrophic damage.

Summer had its share of heat waves, but they were more of the hit-and-run variety than the persistent heat of the year before. June-August ranked as the 15th-warmest summer, versus third warmest in 2012. The West noted its seventh-hottest summer, while the Northwest sweated through its third-hottest summer.

One of the most notable heat waves of the year gripped the Southwest in late June. On June 28, temperatures soared to 115°F in Las Vegas, Nevada—the first 115-degree reading since July 6, 2007. Phoenix, Arizona, reached 116°F. The next day, Death Valley tied its June record with 128°F. In Utah, thermometers peaked at 105°F on June 28 and 29 in Salt Lake City, which was the first time the city had seen 105°F in June. Temperatures reached the triple digits every day from June 27 through July 3 (seven consecutive days). Salt Lake City would go on to record its hottest July and hottest month, as did Reno, Nevada.

Alaska notched its second-warmest summer on record, with June 17 its warmest day since June 15, 1969. Temperatures in Talkeetna, about 100 miles north of Anchorage, soared to 96°F, and a number of other towns set all-time records. Abnormal warmth continued, as Fairbanks measured its 36th day with 80-degree temperatures on August 8—a record. Temperatures were above normal every day from July 23 through August 19 (28 straight days). This followed one of Fairbank's coldest springs (eight degrees below normal).

The Midwest and Northeast also sizzled during July 15-20. On July 18, the National Weather Service posted heat advisories or warnings in parts of 22 states from the Dakotas to Maine. Chicago hit 96°F on July 19, but New York City made it to 100°F the day before. Newark, New Jersey, struck the century mark on both July 18 and 19. Hartford, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island, would go on to record their all-time hottest months, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island each noted their hottest July. The Southeast, in contrast, was abnormally cool and very wet. Even lacking tropical storms, the region tallied its second wettest July in 119 years and its wettest since 1916. Florida marked its wettest July, with Gainesville measuring 16.65 inches. Miami Beach saw 18.47 inches, a July record. Rains also soaked the mid-Atlantic, with Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, seeing a soggy 13.24 inches, including 8.02 inches in a single day (July 28)—its wettest day ever.

Drought persisted over much of the West during the year, although a vigorous monsoon season in summer brought relief and spotty flooding to the Southwest. In California, Sierra snowpack was just 18% of normal at the end of April—not a good sign for future water supplies. An unusually dry fall and early winter in late 2013 greatly increased water supply concerns, and ensured that the state would have its driest calendar year on record.

A vigorous monsoon brought needed rain to much of the Southwest during summer—the wettest in seven years, but bouts of hot, dry weather on top of lingering drought set the stage for several massive fires in spring and summer.

In June, Colorado's Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs charred over 14,000 acres and destroyed 511 homes, making this the state's most damaging wildfire in history, surpassing 2012's Waldo Canyon Fire. On June 30, the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Arizona, took the lives of 19 firefighters—the nation's greatest toll since 1933. Lightning ignited the fire on June 28. California's “Rim” Fire near Yellowstone in August-October became that state's third largest wildfire, which burned 257,000 acres and destroyed 112 structures, including 11 homes.

Burned acreage across the United States during 2013, at 4.3 million acres, totaled less than one-half the acreage burned the year before—a fairly surprising number given the major fires out West, but consistent with the wetness that much of the country experienced this year.

Despite some lingering drought in the West, flash flooding frequently made news from July to September, striking cities from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The standout storm is the one that struck Boulder, Colorado, and surrounding foothill communities in mid-September. An influx of tropical moisture from the south, abetted by low pressure to the west and mountain uplift, triggered massive rainfall in a short period of time—the ingredients for deadly flooding in this part of the country. Boulder measured 9.08 inches of rain on September 12-13, which was nearly double the previous 24-hour record. Four-day rainfall from September 11-14 of 14.46 inches was enough to eradicate all monthly record rainfall amounts. The resultant flooding inundated parts of 18 cities and towns, marooned thousands of people, destroyed 1,800 homes, left nine dead, and cost $2 billion. This was one of the worst flash floods in Colorado history.

Blizzards, Tornadoes, and Cold

The October 4-7 blizzard was one of the most extreme early “winter” blizzards for any United States region. The storm dumped up to four feet of snow on South Dakota's Black Hills, less than six months after a record April snowstorm. The low pressure system brought winds of 70 mph to South Dakota, where the combination of cold, snow, and wind proved deadly for thousands of cattle. The blizzard also hit Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and the storm system set off tornadoes in South Dakota, eastern Nebraska, and western Iowa.

The next month featured another out-of-season extreme weather event. Fall tornado outbreaks are not that unusual in the South, but severe weather in the Midwest is another story, and nearly unheard of at the scale seen on November 17. A cold front trailing an intense low (970 mb) tracking northeastward across the Great Lakes region triggered a stunning outbreak of severe thunderstorms across the Midwest that resulted in 74 tornadoes, including an EF4 that destroyed much of the town of Washington, Illinois. This was the strongest November tornado in Illinois since at least 1950 and one of the nation's three most damaging November outbreaks.

As with the national wildfire acreage statistics, the annual tornado statistics were surprising given the historical outbreaks this year. The total number of tornadoes (903) was 36 fewer than in 2012 and 454 fewer than the five-year average. Indeed, this was the fewest number of tornadoes for any year since at least 1953, based on de-trended data.

Here We Go Again

The winter of 2013-2014 got off to a wild start, as if to resume where the previous winter left off. One storm dumped up to 39 inches of snow on Colorado from November 21-24, while leaving up to 13 inches on Oklahoma and even 10 inches in Texas. Odessa, Texas, accumulated two inches of freezing rain. A low pressure area tracking northward up the East Coast from November 26-28 hassled Thanksgiving travelers. This would turn out to be merely the start of an extreme winter that featured numerous snowstorms frustrating highway and air travelers well into 2014.

The jet stream plunged southward out of Canada this December, bringing an arctic chill to the lower 48. The cold followed a winter storm that spread heavy snow from the Rockies to the Plains on December 2-3. Temperatures dipped to −37°F in Havre, Montana, on December 8, while the reading of −30°F in Burns, Oregon, set an all-time record. The 3°F degrees in Amarillo, Texas, deserved some bragging rights as well, as did the reading of −3°F in South Bend, Indiana, on December 12. Subfreezing temperatures even hit California, with Stockton notching a daily record with 22°F on December 9.

Of the several winter storms that affected the country in December, the most destructive was the one that travelled northeastward out of Texas on December 20-22, as heavy snow fell from the central Plains to the Upper Midwest and freezing rain fell from northern Michigan to northern New England. Up to one inch of ice accumulated in Maine and Vermont and 0.75 inches in Michigan. Downed limbs, trees, and wires left 440,000 homes and businesses without power in the United States, and another 400,000 powerless in eastern Canada. At least 12 deaths were blamed on the storm.

The highly amplified upper air circulation pattern responsible for the extreme weather featured a large ridge over western North America and deep trough over the East. This resulted in mild weather for Alaska and worsening drought in California. While the Midwest froze, Cold Bay, Alaska, set seven consecutive daily high records on December 3-9. And California was amazingly dry, with some locations such as Los Angeles recording no measureable rain the entire month. A large wildfire even burned in the Big Sur area, and destroyed 34 homes—a rare event during a month that is considered part of the rainy season.

California recorded its second driest December and driest calendar year, causing reservoirs to plummet to worrisome levels. Folsom Lake reservoir, for example, was under one-third of normal in December, which is even lower than that recorded during the major drought of 1976-1977. By December 31, the United States Drought Monitor depicted Le Comte-Svoboda category 1-4 (moderate to exceptional) drought covering 94% of the state. This was up from 55% one year earlier. San Francisco set a record with a puny 5.60 inches of rain for the year, while Los Angeles came in with a paltry total of 3.60 inches (normal is 14.93 inches). Desert locations often have more rain.

Weatherwise Contributing Editor DOUGLAS LECOMTE is a retired meteorologist formerly with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. He has been writing the Weatherwise Almanac issue's United States and international summaries since 1979.

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