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Weatherwise -- May-June 2015

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U.S. Weather Highlights 2014: Drought and Polar Vortex

“Polar vortex” became the term du jour during the opening months of 2014, as incessant arctic air plunged southward, and storms of ice, snow, and sleet paraded across the nation, stranding tens of thousands of travelers at airports and thousands of others on highways. Meanwhile, heat and drought plagued California and other Western states.

Arctic Blasts

Even long-time weather watchers marveled at the persistence of this weather pattern in January, February, and on into March. That stubborn pattern, featuring the upper air ridge near western North America and a deep trough over eastern North America, would only grudgingly give way for a day or three this winter and then come roaring right back.

The seasonal winter statistics tell the tale. During the winter of 2013–2014 (December–February), temperatures averaged eight degrees below normal from northern parts of Illinois and Indiana to North Dakota, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Cities within this region generally notched one of their three coldest winters of record. Chicago, Illinois, for example, endured its third coldest winter, third snowiest winter (82 inches), and snowiest season since 1977–1978. Detroit, Michigan's total of 94.9 inches was simply its snowiest of all-time.

The extreme wintry weather that affected much of the nation during January 5–8 stands out among the numerous episodes this season. Temperatures dropped to −20°F to −26°F across the northern Plains on January 5, when the NWS posted winter advisories and warnings in 39 states. Chicago, Illinois, experienced 37 hours of subzero readings, and January 6 may have been the nation's coldest day since 1997.

Widespread snow accompanied the cold blast over the Midwest, but the powerful winds behind the cold front made this a very dangerous event, as wind chills dropped to amazingly low levels on January 5–6. Examples include −46°F in Moline, Illinois, −54°F at Ironwood, Michigan, and −63°F in Comertown, Montana.

Reinsurance company Aon Benfield (source for the economic cost data) pegged the cost of the cold, snow, and ice at some $3 billion, making this one of the most expensive events of the year. The wintry weather took 21 lives.

This cold wave followed a storm that delivered snow, cold, and wind from Montana to Maine on January 1–3, causing the cancellation of thousands of flights. Another winter storm on January 21–22 spread heavy snow from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts, canceling thousands of additional flights. Southern snow on January 28 caused the massive traffic snarl in Atlanta, Georgia, metro area that stranded drivers through the night.

Typical with this kind of weather pattern, the ridge over western North America resulted in abnormally mild weather for that part of the continent. Alaska noted its third warmest January, with 62°F at Port Alsworth on January 27 tying the state's all-time high January temperature. To the south, numerous California locations measured record daily highs, with readings up to 91°F. This was also the driest January on record for the state, further worsening the drought that followed the driest calendar year (2013) on record. Los Angeles, California, measured no rain the entire month. A couple of storms eased drought in February, but reservoirs remained well below average.

To the east, cold and snow continued over the central and eastern states. A winter storm on February 4 dumped heavy snow from the Midwest to New England and spread sleet and ice across the south. The storm left some 750,000 customers without power in Pennsylvania. This was Philadelphia's largest power outage on record outside of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The Valentine's Day storm on February 11–14 poured sleet, freezing rain, and snow across the South, leading to traffic gridlock in North Carolina. One to two feet of snow buried the mid-Atlantic into New England. Across the Southeast and Northeast, 25 people died and economic costs exceeded $900 million.

Snow and cold even persisted well into March and, in some areas, into April. Marquette, Michigan, had 28 inches of snow on the ground on April 17. Ice lingered for such a long time on the Great Lakes that ice floes accompanied spring swimmers; June 10 was the first day without ice on the Lakes.

For most of the Midwest, this was the coldest November–April since the late 1970s. In contrast, California had its mildest November–April in 119 years, helping to keep the drought and fire danger intact. By July, California reservoir storage was around 60% of normal—the lowest for the time of year since 1977—resulting in widespread water restrictions.

Wind, Rain, Hail, Fire

April–June saw notable severe weather outbreaks, but the annual tornado count of 888 was less than in 2013 (908)—the third consecutive year with below-average numbers and the lowest since 1989. The 47 deaths were the lowest since 2010 (45). The deadliest outbreak, accounting for 72% of all United States tornado deaths in 2014, was the rash of storms on April 27–28 that caused 34 deaths in Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. An EF4 took 16 lives in Arkansas on April 27—the deadliest twister of the year.

May featured several expensive severe weather outbreaks. Severe thunderstorms on May 10–15 from the Plains to the mid-Atlantic caused heavy damage in several states. During May 18–23, a frontal system triggered severe thunderstorms from the Rockies to the Northeast. There were 591 reports of large (one-inch or greater) hail. This weather event may qualify as the most expensive event that no one remembers, as insured losses came to a staggering $2.9 billion.

Hot weather, drought, low humidity, and gusty winds contributed to wildfire outbreaks in the Texas Panhandle and Southern California on May 11–20. A Texas fire damaged or destroyed 225 homes, and at least 14 fires scorched California's San Diego area. Temperatures soared into the 100s in mid-May over much of California.

Winter and spring precipitation missed much of the southern Plains. The United States Drought Monitor depicted extreme drought from Nebraska to Texas by May, with dire consequences to the winter wheat crop, which was rated 78% poor to very poor in Oklahoma. Farmers simply abandoned a number of fields within the region. Kansas noted its fourth-driest November–April of record. Late May rains over the southern Plains eased the drought and reduced the fire threat, but arrived too late for the wheat.

Various parts of the nation were raked by 280 tornadoes in June. The June 14–19 outbreak featured dozens of tornadoes in the Midwest. On June 16, twin EF4 tornadoes resulted in some of the most spectacular images of the year, as they approached and demolished much of the village of Pilger in northeast Nebraska, leaving two dead. The supercell thunderstorm that tracked over northeast Nebraska produced five tornadoes, including four EF4s.

Earlier, June 3 represented the first day of a barrage of severe weather that hit various parts of the country for over a week, resulting in more than 2,000 reports of large hail, tornadoes, and damaging winds—one of several weather events this year that exceeded $1 billion in costs.

Summer Floods and Pleasant Temperatures

Heavy rains in June triggered Midwest flooding into July, with twice normal rainfall across much of the Plains and many areas in the East. Canton, South Dakota, measured 19.65 inches of rain for the month, setting a state record for any month. In Iowa, Sioux City recorded 16.65 inches, setting an all-time monthly record. The heavy June rainfall bloated the Mississippi River to its third highest crest on record from New Boston, Illinois, to Burlington, Iowa. Floodwaters submerged Main Street in Davenport, Iowa, during July 4–8.

The summer was notable for its lack of heat. July “cool waves” mid- and late-month resulted in hundreds of record low temperatures across the central states. Chicago, Illinois, did not experience a single 90-degree day in August, and only three all summer. Farther east, Boston, Massachusetts, enjoyed a total lack of 90-degree temperatures in August. Nationwide, July was the coolest since 2009, and residents in 13 states from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico appreciated one of the top-10 coolest Julys. The cool weather contributed to record corn and soybean crops.

As usual this year, the Pacific states took exception to the lack of heat, with Oregon noting its second hottest July. Lightning triggered a wild-fire in Oregon on July 14 that would become the state's largest of record. The “Buzzard Complex” fire burned 395,747 acres (618 square miles) 45 miles southeast of Burns, Oregon.

Tropical Storms and Flash Floods

On the other side of the country, Hurricane Arthur made landfall over North Carolina on July 3. This was the first hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous United States since 2012 and the first Category 2 storm to hit land since Ike in 2008. Arthur was the earliest landfalling hurricane on record in North Carolina. Wind and flooding damaged some buildings and caused power outages, but damages were relatively minor. This was the only Atlantic storm to make landfall in the continental United States this year. Only eight named storms developed in the Atlantic during 2014.

The eastern Pacific storm season, in contrast, was very active, with 20 named storms—the most since 1992. One of those storms, Iselle, went on to make landfall on the Big Island of Hawaii on August 8. Iselle was rated at 70 mph, just under hurricane strength, upon striking the state. This was the first storm of tropical strength to make landfall in Hawaii since 1992, and the strongest storm on record to hit the Big Island.

Several eastern Pacific storms contributed moisture to the Southwestern states. The abundant rains relieved drought but triggered a number of flood episodes, including two in the Phoenix, Arizona, area (August 3–4 and August 19).

Historically heavy rainfalls also set off flooding from Michigan to the East Coast on August 11–13. Detroit residents experienced one of the worst floods of record on August 11–12 as around five inches of rain inundated the city, flooding freeways and streets and submerging vehicles up to their roofs. Over 1,000 cars were abandoned. The 4.57 inches measured at the airport was the second heaviest calendar day total. Heavy rain also lashed Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., on August 12. The Baltimore airport noted its second wettest calendar day total with 6.26 inches, causing flood waters to reach the headlights of cars parked near the airport. Torrential rains struck Long Island, New York, on August 13, measuring 13.26 inches in 24 hours—a new state record.

Remnants of Tropical Depression Norbert triggered flooding over the Southwest on September 7–8, with the Phoenix, Arizona, area once again experiencing submerged roadways. At the airport, 2.03 inches fell in 24 hours—an impressive total for a desert city.

The wet weather this summer across the Southwest curtailed wildfire activity. Despite huge fires in the Northwest and the San Diego, California, blazes, the large burned acreage that many expected this year never materialized. The total acreage burned (3.6 million acres) in the United States was the lowest since 2010 and the second lowest since 2001.

A November to Remember

November took off where the winter of 2013–2014 left off, as few parts of the country escaped Mother Nature's wintry wrath this month. Nationwide temperatures made this the coldest November since 2000. By mid-month, snow covered over one-half of the Lower 48 states, establishing a November record in the satellite era (49 years). November 18 was the coldest November day since 1976.

A nor'easter on November 1–2 brought record early-season snows to the Southeast, including one–two inches in the South Carolina lowlands and 22 inches to the Tennessee mountains (Mount Leconte). Up to 21 inches of snow fell in Maine.

A low pressure system ahead of an Arctic outbreak dumped over a foot of snow from east-central Minnesota eastward into the Upper Penninsula of Michigan on November 9–12. Heavy snow also fell in the northern Rockies. With a boost from lake-effect snows, amounts totaled three feet and more in northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin. In Denver, Colorado, the mercury plummeted to −14°F on November 13.

A second blast of frigid air descended from Canada on November 16–17, setting up historic lake-effect snows near Buffalo, New York. Two rounds of intense snowfalls from November 17–21 piled up depths rarely seen anywhere. In Erie County, snowfall totals ranged up to 79.5 inches (Hamburg). Cowlesville in nearby Wyoming County took the prize with 88.0 inches. Authorities shut down all major roadways for three days or more.

And then there was that Thanksgiving nor'easter that dumped up to 20 inches of snow from Maryland to Maine on November 26–27, stranding holiday travelers and leaving over 300,000 customers without power across New England.

For December, the jet stream retreated northward, and mild weather dominated the nation. In fact, this was the second warmest December on record and the warmest since 1939 across the Lower 48.

Drought-stricken residents of California may have gotten more moisture than they asked for, as two major Pacific storms struck the state—one on December 2–3 and the other on December 10–12. The second storm caused flooding in the Bay area but also slammed Southern California. Mud and rock slides in Camarillo Springs north of Los Angeles, California, buried houses up to their roofs. No deaths were reported from this slide, unlike the landslide that struck the town of Oso, Washington, on March 22, which took 43 lives. This was the deadliest weather-related disaster of 2014.

The average temperatures for the year illustrated the impact of the persistent circulation pattern over North America. California, Nevada, and Arizona notched their warmest years on record, as did Alaska. Top-10 cold affected Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

TOP 10: U.S. Weather Events 2014

The weather event rankings consider 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, homeless, etc.).

  • 1. California Drought: January–December. Continued below-normal rain and snow through the 2013–2014 rainy season plus the warmest year on record in 2014 allowed the worst drought in nearly 40 years to continue. Drought also affected portions of neighboring states. Heavy rains in December brought relief, but reservoirs continued below normal into early 2015. Estimated economic losses exceeded $4 billion.

  • 2. Extreme Cold: January 5–8. Numerous cold waves and snowstorms affected the country in early 2014, but the arctic blast that struck nearly the entire nation east of the Rockies in early January stood out from the rest, with widespread subzero temperatures and wind chills below −40°F across the Midwest. The wintry weather was blamed for 21 deaths and economic costs exceeding $3 billion.

  • 3. Central and Southern Tornado Outbreak: April 27–28. Although the annual tornado count dropped below 900 for the first time in 25 years, there were several deadly outbreaks this year. The deadliest one caused 34 deaths in Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Tennessee, accounting for 72% of all United States tornado deaths in 2014.

  • 4. Valentine's Day Snowstorm: February 11–14. From the Midwest to the Northeast, this storm dropped six inches or more of snow where 63 million people reside. Over a foot of snow buried areas from North Carolina to Maine. The ranking as a Category 4 storm for the Southeast by the Regional Snowfall Index (RSI) means this was an historical storm for that region. Twenty-five deaths were blamed on the storm.

  • 5. Midwest and Mid-Atlantic Flooding: August 11–13. Five inches of rain in 24 hours inundated Detroit, Michigan, submerging cars up to their roofs, in one of the city's worst flooding episodes on record. Flooding also hit the Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., areas, and Islip, Long Island, New York, measured 13.26 inches in 24 hours, setting a new state record. Economic costs exceeded $2 billion.

  • 6. Midwest to Northeast Snowstorm and Extreme Cold: January 1–3. This long-track storm dropped snow from Montana to Maine, canceling thousands of flights from Chicago, Illinois, to Boston, Massachusetts. Up to 18 inches fell in the Chicago area, and temperatures dipped to −43°F at International Falls, Minnesota.

  • 7. Hurricane Arthur: July 3. Arthur, which struck North Carolina, was the only hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States this year. Although damage was relatively minor along the East Coast, Arthur was notable as the earliest hurricane on record to make landfall in North Carolina and the first Category 2 storm to make United States landfall since 2008 (Ike).

  • 8. Cold, Snow, and Ice: January 28–February 3. A southern low pressure system spread snow and ice across the South on January 28, leading to massive traffic gridlock in Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama. A separate system to the north then spread snow from the Central states to the Northeast, dumping six inches or more where 33 million people live.

  • 9. Lake Effect Snows: November 17–21. Two rounds of extremely heavy snowfall off Lake Erie dropped up to 88 inches near Buffalo, New York, closing all major highways, collapsing over 100 roofs, and leaving 13 dead.

  • 10. Severe Weather: June 14–19. Dozens of tornadoes raked the Midwest, with the standout event being the twin EF4 tornadoes that destroyed much of the town of Pilger on June 16 in northeast Nebraska.

U.S. Top-10 List: RUNNERS UP

As is often the case, around 15 or more weather events could easily be included in the top-10 for the year, so several noteworthy events had to be left out. Here are a few:

  • 1. Lack of Summer Heat in the Midwest: It was not always cool, but heat waves were few and far between this summer from the Plains states to the East Coast. Chicago, Illinois, for example, recorded only three 90-degree readings all year: two in June, one in July, and none in August. Homeowners saved money on air conditioning costs, and farmers harvested record corn and soybean crops.

  • 2. Landslide in Oso, Washington: On March 22, heavy rains in Washington State culminated in the deadliest landslide in United States history, when a portion of a hill collapsed, burying an area of one square mile and causing 43 deaths.

  • 3. Snow Storms: Several snow storms in addition to those discussed in the top-10, caused major transportation headaches, including the Rockies to mid-Atlantic February 26–March 3 system and the Northeast Thanksgiving storm, November 26–28.

  • 4. Severe Weather Outbreaks: Several severe weather outbreaks aused damages of $1 billion or more, including September 27–30 in the Rockies and Southwest, and on May 18–23 from the Rockies to the Northeast.

  • 5. Tropical Storm Estelle: Estelle weakened to tropical storm strength before making landfall on the Big Island, Hawaii, on August 7. Nevertheless, Estelle was the strongest storm on record to make landfall on the Big Island.

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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