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May-June 2016

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U.S. Weather Highlights 2015: A Record-Shattering Winter, Persistent Western Drought, Widespread Flooding

The Boston Snow Blitz

For the second consecutive year, fierce cold and snow struck the eastern half of the nation while abnormally mild weather covered the West. Eastern New England bore the brunt of the cold and snow, as an unprecedented snow blitz pounded Boston, Massachusetts, over a 23-day period. From January 24 to February 15, four snowstorms each dumped over a foot of snow on the city. Combined with several minor snowfalls, the total of 90.2 inches—over 7.5 feet—had never been measured over such a brief period. Persistent low temperatures kept the snow pack largely intact, and by February 15, snow depths reached three feet and higher across much of eastern Massachusetts. Numerous roofs collapsed, and travel by road or rail proved difficult to impossible. At the Blue Hill Observatory west of Boston (Milton), the 46-inch depth on February 15 set a record going back to 1885.

The persistence of the snow was only exceeded by the persistence of the cold. In Boston, where February temperatures averaged 12.7°F below normal, every day except one was below normal from January 26 to March 8. Hartford, Connecticut's February record average temperature was 13.6°F below normal, an extraordinary monthly departure for any location.

The regional United States rankings for February told the tale, as the persistent upper air trough over the east (“Terribly Tenacious Trough”) accompanied a strong high pressure ridge over western North America (“Ridiculously Resilient Ridge”). The latter resulted in record-shattering warmth across the West, which experienced the warmest meteorological winter (December–February) since at least 1895, with temperatures averaging 6.4°F above the 1901–2000 mean. California had its warmest winter by far, its departure of 5.9°F breaking the record set just one year earlier. Temperatures soared to a summer-like 88°F in downtown Los Angeles, California, on February 13, with a five-day stretch of 80-degree weather from February 11–15.

Cold weather continued across the Northeast into March, while warmth again dominated the western third of the nation. California, Oregon, and Washington notched their second warmest March of the last 121 years, while the New England states recorded a chill that put them in the top-12 for cold. January–March ending up as the coldest such period in 121 years of record-keeping in the Northeast is especially noteworthy given long-term warming trends. In contrast, the West, Northwest, and Southwest all noted their warmest such three-month period, while the West, Northern Plains, and Upper Midwest recorded their second driest such period in 121 years.

On March 15, Boston set a new seasonal snowfall record (108.6 inches), and the final seasonal tally reached 110.3 inches, but snow was not limited to the Northeast this memorable winter. A low pressure system that tracked from Colorado to the New England coast during February 1–3 dumped snow from the Plains to the East Coast, and blasted Chicago with blizzard conditions that deposited 19.3 inches of snow—the greatest snowfall since the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 and the fifth largest snowstorm of all time.

In Michigan, a massive lake-effect snowfall on January 9 contributed to a 193-vehicle pileup on I-94, leaving one dead and 22 injured near Battle Creek. This was likely one of the worst multiple car accidents of all time. A surprise ice storm also caused hundreds of accidents from Pennsylvania to Connecticut on January 18, including a 50-car pileup near Philadelphia on I-76.

Of the four storms that battered the Northeast during January 24 to February 15, the Nor'easter that struck eastern New England on January 26–27 (Winter Storm “Juno” according to The Weather Channel) may go down as the most memorable of the season, as this storm intensified into a true blizzard for coastal New England. Wind gusts to 70 mph buffeted Nantucket and Cape Cod, and sustained winds of 40–50 mph lashed the New England coast. Crashing waves destroyed houses in Marshfield, Massachusetts, taking out an 80-foot sea wall. The storm dropped 30 inches or more of snow from eastern Connecticut through southern Maine. This was Boston's sixth biggest snowstorm (25.6 inches) of record. West of Boston, 33.5 inches buried Worcester, Massachusetts, setting an all-time record.

Vying with “Juno,” Winter Storm “Neptune” also battered the New England coast during February 14–15, bringing 65-mph winds to Nantucket and 21 inches of snow to York, Maine. More roofs collapsed in Massachusetts and the coast saw additional flooding.

Several notable cold waves sent temperatures plummeting across the Plains and East this winter. As in 2014, an early gush of frigid air out of Canada sent teeth-chattering cold into many states during the first week of January. On January 7, thanks to one of the strongest high pressure systems on record, the National Weather Service placed every state from the Plains to the East Coast under some kind of winter, wind chill, or freeze advisory/warning. At one point, Chicago reported a temperature of 0°F with a northwest wind of 23 mph, yielding a wind chill of –23°F.

Perhaps the most severe period of winter weather in terms of economic impact took place during February 16–22, when two storms blanketed the Plains to the mid-Atlantic with ice and snow. The individual storms were not historic, but in conjunction with some of the lowest temperatures seen in years, including –20°F in New England, emergencies were declared in six states. Travel restrictions and power outages contributed to an economic cost of at least $3.25 billion, according to Aon Benfield, a reinsurance firm, making this the costliest seven days of winter.

Over the West, a strengthening El Niño had little impact early in the year, allowing mild, dry winter weather to worsen the long-term drought, which was entering its fourth year. California remained the epicenter of the drought, with the April 1 Sierra snow pack setting a record at a meager 5% of average, ensuring low reservoir levels throughout the year. The grim water supply outlook spurred Governor Brown to order a 25% reduction in water usage for cities and towns. Drought also spread north and east, thanks in part to abnormal heat, such that 100% of Oregon and Washington rated Category D2-D3 (severe to extreme) on the United States Drought Monitor in September.

Wet and Stormy Spring

A barrage of eastward-moving short waves helped to trigger numerous episodes of severe weather and flooding rains, mainly across the Plains, Midwest, and South. The nation had experienced something of a relative lull in tornado activity the preceding three years. But that hiatus ended this spring. April saw 169 tornadoes, an increase of 30 from 2014. The May total ballooned to 380 versus 130 in 2014. The two-month total of nine deaths could have been far higher given the 549 twisters.

A number of powerful low pressure systems dumped flooding rains across the Central states in May, and severe weather with hail, damaging winds, and tornadoes also left their mark. For the month, over 10 inches of rain deluged a large expanse from southern Iowa south to Texas, while parts of Oklahoma and eastern Texas notched over 20 inches. The upshot was the wettest May on record for Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. The wetness was extreme enough to make this not only the wettest May nationwide on record, but the wettest month overall in 121 years.

Catastrophic flooding overtook parts of Texas. Up to 12.32 inches of rain fell in 24 hours during May 23–24 in South-Central Texas, causing the Blanco River to overflow and destroy some 350 homes in Wimberley. Later, up to 10 inches of rain flooded the Houston area during the night of May 25–26, submerging highways into and out of the city. Residents compared this disaster to the historic floods caused by Ike (2008) and Allison (2001). Tornadoes added to the damage toll, as 31 touched down in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Florida on May 25 alone. All told, severe weather and flooding during May 23–28 from the Rockies to the Southeast took 32 lives and caused economic losses of at least $3.75 billion, making this the second most expensive severe weather/flood event of the year. Still another storm system swamped the Dallas area on May 29–30, dropping up to eight inches of rain in 12 hours. One creek rose 25 feet in hours, leading to dozens of water rescues.

Earlier in the spring, three episodes of severe weather each cost at least $1.0 billion in damage: April 7–10 in the Plains, Midwest, and Mississippi Valley; April 18–21 in the Plains, Southeast, and Northeast; and May 6–13 in the Plains, Midwest, and Rockies.

Despite the damaging storms, the death toll from tornadoes was surprisingly low. Although one death is one too many, the number of year-to-date fatalities (10) going into December would have set an annual modern day record if not for two low pressure systems during the last two weeks of the year that increased the toll by 26.

May also saw an early tropical storm (Ana) make landfall along the East Coast near the North Carolina/South Carolina border on May 10. She dumped heavy rains on the area, but damage was minimal. Tropical Storm Bill, on the other hand, made landfall on June 16 in Texas and tracked northward and eastward, depositing heavy rains on areas recovering from earlier wetness. Wind or flooding damage cost over $100 million in Texas and Oklahoma.

Summer Severe Weather Outbreaks and Western Heat and Wildfires

June featured an extended period of severe weather that affected much of the country east of the Rockies, costing over $1 billion. From June 17–27, the tally of reports of high winds, large hail, and tornadoes rose to an astounding 3,601. A derecho on June 22 hit Iowa with wind gusts to 95 mph. On June 23 alone, there were 510 reports of severe weather, according to the Storm Prediction Center. A squall line crossing the mid-Atlantic states that evening produced a 72-mph wind gust in Philadelphia.

The West continued to march to a different drummer, and the Northwest endured an unprecedented June heat wave that continued into July. Temperatures frequently soared to triple-digit levels from June 26 to July 4 in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. On June 28, residents of Walla Walla, Washington, endured a temperature of 113°F, not only breaking the daily record, but the monthly record as well, and even setting a June state record. In Idaho, Boise broke its June record with 110°F.

Abundant monsoon rains and local flooding, including the flash flood that took 19 lives in southern Utah on September 14, eased the wildfire threat for the Southwest this summer, but heat and dryness produced tinder-dry vegetation in the Northwest and northern California, contributing to a prolific wildfire season. The largest California fire scorched 76,067 acres in September north of San Francisco (the “Valley Fire”), destroying 1,958 structures, including 1,280 homes. This was the state's third most destructive fire in modern history. A second monster wildfire burned near Sacramento (the “Butte Fire”), scorching 70,868 acres and burning 475 homes. An even larger blaze (“Soda Fire”) burned 283,686 acres across southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon in August. Washington also experienced enormous wildfires.

Wildfires also burned 5 million acres in Alaska, following the mildest January–June since 1981. This was the most acreage burned in Alaska since 2004. For the year and for the entire nation, the 10.1 million acres scorched set a modern record.

Historical Carolinas Flooding

An intensifying El Niño arrived too late to benefit the Western drought, but it did come in time to affect the tropical cyclone season for both the Atlantic and Pacific, creating record activity in the latter and a somewhat subdued season in the former. The Atlantic Basin saw 11 named storms, which is around average, and four hurricanes, a bit below average. The “drought” in major hurricane strikes for the United States mainland continued, with no such landfalls since 2005 (though New Jersey residents may take issue with Sandy not being “major”). However, Hurricane Joaquin contributed to the most expensive weather disaster of the year in early October. A plume of tropical moisture from the storm near the Bahamas in conjunction with a nearly stationary front produced historic flooding over South Carolina and southern North Carolina.

Over several days, rainfall amounts exceeded 15 inches from the South Carolina Low Country through the midlands, as well as along the northern coast. Amounts exceeded 20 inches in Charleston and Berkeley Counties, with 26.88 inches near Mount Pleasant. Charleston Airport measured 11.50 inches on October 3 and a four-day total of 17.29 inches during October 1–4. Records for one, two, three, and four days were set at Charleston. Up to 19.79 inches of rain fell in North Carolina.

Major flooding resulted as rivers rose to some of their highest levels in history. By October 6, flooding closed 306 state roads and 163 bridges in South Carolina, with a 70-mile stretch of I-95 shut down. Drownings and car crashes took 19 lives in South Carolina. Overall costs reached at least $5 billion.

More torrential rains and flooding struck Texas and Louisiana in late October, with Corsicana, southeast of Dallas, measuring an amazing 21.04 inches of rain during October 22–25. Waco noted nearly a foot (11.66 inches). The moisture from the historic Eastern Pacific hurricane, Patricia, contributed to the heavy rains. A second round of torrential rains and flooding hit the same region during the last two days of October. Austin picked up 13.60 inches, bringing its total from October 22–31 a spectacular 21.15 inches. Another amazing statistic: prior to these two rounds of flooding rains, Austin had gone from September 26–October 21 with no measurable rainfall at all.

In the Central Pacific, a record season saw 14 storms at tropical storm or greater strength, including 8 hurricanes. Surprisingly, not a single storm made landfall over any of the Hawaiian islands.

Although temperatures averaged above normal for much of the country in November, several winter storms left their mark. An upper Great Lakes storm on November 20–21 dumped up to 16 inches of snow in Michigan, 17 inches in Iowa, 18 inches in Illinois and South Dakota, and 16 inches in Nebraska. The 11.2-inch total in Chicago made this their second biggest November snowstorm and the biggest since November 25–26, 1895 (12.0 inches). Four days earlier, a blizzard whacked the Plains and Southwest, while tornadoes struck from Nebraska to Texas. Ice, heavy rain, and deadly flooding struck the southern Plains and Mississippi Valley on November 27–28.

The Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex ended up with the wettest November on record, the wettest fall, and the wettest year, even before December began.

Wild and Mild December

Mother Nature decided to end the year with a bang, seemingly hurling everything in her arsenal our way. There was heavy rain and snow along the West Coast as El Niño continued at near historic levels, with up to 12 inches of rain during December 6–12 along the Pacific Northwest coast; heavy snow and rain, severe weather, tornadoes, and flooding across the Southwest, Rockies, Plains, and Midwest; the deadliest winter storm of the year with near nationwide impacts; and record warmth in the East.

Abnormal southerly flow made it feel like summer in December, with several periods of record warmth in the eastern half of the nation and a record late start to the snow season in some locations. On December 12, dozens of cities noted record highs, including 85°F in Tampa, Florida; 77°F in Norfolk, Virginia; 76°F in Memphis, Tennessee; and 71°F in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The warmth of Christmas Eve and Day was remarkable, with temperatures approaching 70°F as far north as New England.

Monthly temperatures, averaging 9°F or more above normal, shattered records. Seldom have so many states broken monthly temperature records. Twenty-nine states—including every state east of the Mississippi River—established new marks for December warmth.

Enhanced moist, southerly flow also established precipitation records, with two states, Wisconsin and Iowa, making this their wettest December, and Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, and Alabama experiencing their second wettest December. The Upper Midwest noted its wettest December, and thanks to near record precipitation in the Northwest, South, and Southeast as well, this month was not only the mildest December nationwide, but also the wettest.

The unusual warmth fueled a number of low pressure systems. One triggered an outbreak of severe weather from Arkansas to Ohio that brought 39 tornadoes to 10 states on December 23, resulting in 13 deaths, with Mississippi especially hit hard. The second storm system was appropriately named “Goliath” by The Weather Channel. Its associated snow, flooding, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes on December 26–30 caused at least 50 deaths and cost $3 billion or more. The low tracked from west Texas on December 26 to Michigan on December 29. Up to 41 inches of snow fell on New Mexico. Blizzard conditions in West Texas killed thousands of cattle, while tornadoes in Northeast Texas took 13 lives on December 26. A mighty EF-4 damaged 780 homes in Garland, near Dallas. Torrential rains mainly in the Illinois–Missouri area on December 26–28 set off some of the worst winter flooding ever on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, causing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes, mainly in Missouri. Saint Louis, Missouri, measured 9.18 inches of rain in three days. The Mississippi rose to record high levels from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to Thebes, Illinois. Towns southwest of Saint Louis were especially hard hit by flooding from the Meramec River, which rose to record levels. Flooding, which claimed at least 25 lives in Missouri and Illinois, continued into the new year.

On a positive note, heavy snow during the early part of the winter of 2015–2016 brought California snow pack up to normal, raising hopes for drought improvement. For the year, this was the second warmest on record nationwide. Region-wide, the Northwest recorded its hottest year, while the South noted its wettest year. The annual tornado death toll of 36 was well below average, and contrasts with 2014's tally of 47. Despite wetness concerns in the Farm Belt, national soybean production set a record and corn production, though down 4% from 2014, was the third highest on record.

TOP 10 U.S. Weather Events 2015

The weather event rankings consider (1) rarity, (2) size of area affected, (3) costs, (4) duration (days, weeks, months), and (5) socioeconomic impacts (fatalities, injuries, power outages, travel, etc.). Economic impacts are supplied by reinsurance firm Aon Benfield unless otherwise stated.

  • 1. California Drought: January–December. Below-normal rain and snow through the 2014–2015 rainy season plus the second warmest January–March in 121 years allowed the worst drought in nearly 40 years to continue for the fourth year. Impacts included massive wildfires, water shortages, and crop reductions. Drought also affected neighboring Western states. Two wildfires in California each burned over 70,000 acres and destroyed a total of 1,755 homes in September. An even larger blaze in Idaho and Oregon burned 283,000 acres in August, and huge wildfires struck Washington. Heavy rain and snow in November–December brought relief, but reservoirs continued below normal. Estimated economic losses from the Western drought exceeded $4.5 billion, not including over $2 billion in economic losses from the California wildfires.

  • 2. Carolina Flood: October 1–5. Moisture advected away from Hurricane Joaquin contributed to torrential rains of 15 inches to as much as 26.88 inches, setting off historic flooding over South Carolina and adjacent North Carolina. Impacts included the loss of 21 lives (19 in South Carolina) and costs of at least $5 billion.

  • 3. Massive December Winter Storm: December 26–30. Aptly named “Goliath” by The Weather Channel, this low pressure system spread blizzard conditions, heavy rain, flooding, snow, ice, damaging winds, and tornadoes from New Mexico to the Northeast. The worst December Mississippi River Valley flooding on record caused thousands to flee their homes in Missouri, while tornadoes in Texas damaged or destroyed over 1,000 homes and caused 13 deaths. At least 50 died in total, while costs reached at least $3 billion.

  • 4. Flooding and Severe Weather: May 23–28. Flooding and tornadoes over the Plains, Midwest, Rockies, and Southeast left 32 dead and cost at least $3.75 billion. One foot of rain falling in 24 hours in South-Central Texas triggered flooding that destroyed some 350 homes in Wimberley.

  • 5. Boston Blizzard of 2015: January 26–28. This was the first of four storms in 21 days that each dumped over one foot of snow on Boston. The storm brought 33.5 inches of snow to Worcester, Massachusetts, the city's greatest snowfall in at least 110 years. Boston's 25.6 inches was its sixth greatest snowstorm.

  • 6. Dual February Snowstorms and Bitter Cold: February 16–22. Two winter storms brought freezing rain, snow, and extreme cold to the Plains, Ohio Valley, and mid-Atlantic region, paralyzing transportation and leading to over $3 billion in costs.

  • 7. February New England Blizzard: February 13–15. The last of the storms that brought an unprecedented total of 90.3 inches of snow to Boston, Massachusetts, in 23 days, this storm dropped 15.2 inches on Boston and delivered 51-mph wind gusts. The storm was linked to 30 fatalities.

  • 8. Midwest and Northeast Snowstorm: February 1–3. A winter storm tracking from Colorado to New England blasted Chicago, Illinois, with blizzard conditions. The Windy City's 19.3 inches made this its fifth largest snowstorm of all time. The wintry weather was blamed for 22 deaths.

  • 9. Eastern February Cold: A barrage of frigid Canadian air masses invaded the East in February, causing monthly temperatures to average 10–15°F below normal from the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley to the Northeast. The Northeast recorded its coldest February since 1934, with every New England state plus New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio notching their second coldest February in 121 years of record-keeping. (In contrast, four Western states experienced their warmest February.)

  • 10. Northwestern Heat Wave: June 26–July 4. A heat wave caused temperatures to soar past 100°F, establishing numerous daily and monthly records. A temperature of 113°F in Washington on June 28 set a new June record for the state.

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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