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May-June 2017

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U.S. Weather Highlights 2016: Warm and Wet

There were any number of interesting and important weather events that occurred in 2016, but abnormal warmth and frequent flooding were especially extensive in 2016. This was the first year with four separate billion-dollar inland flood disasters. Make that five if you include the flooding from Hurricane Matthew. Of course, “rain makes grain,” and abundant moisture over the Midwest contributed to record corn and soybean production.

El Niño began living up to its promise during early 2016, as heavy rain and snow began filling reservoirs in drought-stricken California and elsewhere in the West, while excessive storminess brought round after round of flooding, hail, wind, and tornadoes to the Gulf Coast region and parts of the Plains and Midwest.

Snowzilla

Although the East experienced a milder than average winter, as did the nation as a whole, residents across the mid-Atlantic will remember the monster snowstorm that hammered the region in late January, breaking a raft of snowfall records from the Washington, D.C., area into New York City. Called “Jonas” by The Weather Channel, and better known as “Snowzilla” in Washington, D.C., or even “Snovechkin” after the star player for the Washington Capitals hockey team, this was a blockbuster nor'easter whatever you want to call it.

The historic storm dumped 20 inches or more from West Virginia into New York City on January 22–23, crippling air and highway travel. The storm was blamed for 58 deaths and economic costs exceeding $1 billion. Heavy snow exceeding 10 inches also blanketed Kentucky and parts of southern New England, so this was truly an expansive as well as expensive snow event. Considering the amount of snow and the millions of residents affected, this was the greatest Northeastern storm since 1996, and one of the most notable in the past century, with all-time records that included 30.5 inches at JFK Airport in New York City and 29.2 inches in Baltimore, Maryland. Glengary, West Virginia, notched an amazing 42-inch snowfall total.

TOP 10 U.S. Weather Events in 2016

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. Hurricane Matthew: October 6–9. The storm carved out a path of destruction from Florida to Virginia, taking 49 lives, including 28 from North Carolina flooding. Matthew made landfall in South Carolina briefly as a Category 1 hurricane, but it deluged North Carolina with up to 15 inches of rain, causing one of the state's greatest flood disasters on record. Economic costs of the storm neared $10 billion.

  • 2. Louisiana Flooding: August 9–16. Weak low pressure combined with abundant Gulf moisture produced phenomenal rainfall and flooding across central Louisiana, inundating entire neighborhoods and towns, especially around Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Rainfall totals exceeded 20 inches in as little as two days. Thirteen people died and economic costs ranged from $10 to $15 billion.

  • 3. January Nor'easter: January 21–23. A historic storm dumped heavy snow from the Ohio Valley to New England, including two feet or more from West Virginia to New York City, crippling transportation. The storm was blamed for 58 deaths and economic costs exceeding $1 billion. This was the most severe snowstorm to affect the Northeast since 1996 based on snowfall amounts and area covered.

  • 4. West Virginia Flash Flood and Severe Weather: June 22–24. Part of a severe weather outbreak that produced over two dozen tornadoes from Illinois to West Virginia, up to 10 inches of rain fell in just 12–24 hours on June 23, setting off West Virginia's third deadliest flood. Twenty-three people lost their lives.

  • 5. Southeastern Drought and Wildfires: March–December. Severe drought in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and the western Carolinas harmed crops, pastures, and water supplies, but the most memorable impact was the late-November outbreak of wildfires that killed 14 people and destroyed more than 2,400 structures in the Gatlinburg area of eastern Tennessee.

  • 6. Texas Hailstorms: April 10–12. Severe weather extended from Texas to Mississippi, but the greatest impacts took place in Texas, where hail sized from 2 to as much as 4.5 inches in diameter caused extensive property damage in the Panhandle and northeastern and southern parts of the state. Economic costs of some $3.5 billion (according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, NCEI) made this the most expensive severe weather episode of the year, and one of the most expensive ever in Texas.

  • 7. Houston Area Flooding: April 17–18. Ten to 17 inches of rain set off widespread urban flooding in Houston and surrounding suburbs. Floodwaters damaged thousands of homes and businesses and led to 1,800 high-water rescues.

  • 8. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Flooding: March 7–10. Rainfall totals across eastern Texas into Louisiana, Arkansas, and other parts of the Lower Mississippi Valley totaled as much as 12–18 inches, setting off widespread flooding, especially along the Sabine River basin on the Texas–Louisiana border. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses at a cost of more than $1.5 billion.

  • 9. Extensive Severe Weather Outbreak, Plains, Southeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic: April 26–May 3. Severe thunderstorms produced over 1,300 reports of large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes from the Plains to the East Coast, causing more than $1.8 billion in economic costs. Over 10 inches of rain produced river flooding in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

  • 10. California Heat, Drought, and Wildfires: January–November. Plentiful rain and snow eased the long-term drought during the 2015–2016 rainy season, especially in the northern part of the state, bringing many reservoirs up to near-normal storage, but much of the precipitation missed the southern half of the state. Hot, dry, windy weather contributed to massive wildfires during July–September, including the Big Sur and Los Angeles areas, leading to large-scale evacuations.

In sharp contrast, Alaska experienced something of a snow drought, with Anchorage snow totals from December to February of 27.6 inches, which is less than half normal. This means Baltimore, Maryland, picked up more snow in one storm than Anchorage in 3 months. Fairbanks set a record for the least snowfall in December–January, with a puny 1.9 inches. Warmth or, more accurately, lack of cold characterized the year in Alaska, which ended up setting a state record for the highest annual temperature.

California's storms tapered off after January, as February 2016 was the 14th driest on record. But heavy rain and flooding lashed the West Coast in March, with a particularly nasty bout of weather on March 5–7. A number of reservoirs in northern California rose to near-normal levels come spring, easing if not eliminating drought in northern parts of the state. The southern half of California, however, got surprisingly meager rain and snow from this El Niño, ending up with mostly below-normal precipitation for the rainy season, allowing the drought to persist into its fifth year.

The meteorological winter (December–February) may have ended up as the mildest such period on record for the contiguous United States, but winter weather fans were not denied, as there were a number of impressive winter storms besides Jonas. Winter Storm “Kayla,” for example, to use The Weather Channel's label, spread heavy snow across the West and Plains during February 1–3. Over a foot of snow covered parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Colorado. The weather forced the cancellation of over 500 flights in Denver, Colorado, and shut down over 200 miles of I-80 in Nebraska.

March 4–7 saw the first of the billion-dollar flood events, as torrential rains struck the lower Mississippi Valley. Twelve to 18 inches of rain set off widespread river flooding, most notably in the Sabine River basin on the Texas–Louisiana border. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses at a cost of at least $1.5 billion.

On April 17–18, 10–17 inches of rain deluged East Texas, including the Houston area, sparking widespread urban flooding that damaged thousands of homes and businesses and leading to 1,800 high-water rescues. This was the second billion-dollar flooding event.

Only a week earlier, during April 10–12, severe weather extended from Texas to Mississippi, but the damage from large hail in Texas made this the most expensive non-flood event of the year. This was also the Rodney Dangerfield of billion-dollar weather disasters, since it got little respect or notice outside of Texas. Although hail storms often fail to make the evening news, large hail can cause enormous damage to vehicles and crops and, with enough size and wind, can also damage buildings. Three consecutive days of severe thunderstorms accompanied by hail sized from two to as much as 4.5 inches in diameter struck the Texas Panhandle, Northeast Texas, including the Dallas area, and southern Texas, including the San Antonio area. Property damage was extensive, with the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI, formerly NCDC) estimating the costs at $3.5 billion. Looking at the April 10–15 period, which includes additional damage from later severe weather, brings the costs up to at least $4.3 billion, according to reinsurer Aon.

The tendency for an influx of moist, unstable air from the Gulf of Mexico to combine with upper air disturbances and surface fronts to create severe weather was a signature of the weather this spring, and other times of the year as well. On eight consecutive days from April 26 to May 3, for example, severe weather struck one part of the country or another from the Plains to the East Coast. Mother Nature seemingly tossed everything in her arsenal, with over 1,300 reports of large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes, causing at least $1.8 billion in economic costs. In addition, over 10 inches of rain produced river flooding in the Lower Mississippi Valley once again.

Despite the numerous instances of severe weather this year, including February tornadoes, the annual number of tornadoes totaled just 971 based on preliminary data. This is hardly a tornado drought, but it does come in well below the recent average of around 1,200. More remarkably, the death toll of 17 was the lowest in decades, with 1986 being the last year with a lower death toll. Unfortunately, luck ran out in 2017, as tornadoes caused more fatalities in January of the new year than during all of 2016.

Triple-Digit Heat and Double-Digit Rainfalls

Heat was another big story in 2016, and high temperatures and low humidity played a role in spreading wildfires in those parts of the country that escaped ample rains. Again, as with the tornadoes, historical perspective paints a more benign picture, as the national fire acreage burned totaled 5.51 million acres, which was below the 10-year average of 6.98 million acres and well below the 2015 total of 10.13 million acres.

Above-normal temperatures were the rule for much of the year and nearly the entire nation, including Alaska. Heat waves scorched many parts of the nation last summer, from the West Coast to New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the South.

Several heat waves were especially notable. Western heat got the meteorological summer off to a sweltering start, as thermometers reached 105°F at Fresno, California, on June 1, setting a record for the date. Death Valley set a daily record on June 2 with a furnace-like reading of 120°F. California and the rest of the West participated in more record heat on June 3–5, with Phoenix, Arizona, noting a record three days of 113°F, 115°F, and 113°F. Las Vegas, Nevada, topped the century mark each day during June 1–10 and again for 13 consecutive days at the end of the month, reaching 115°F on June 20, which is within 2 degrees of the city's all-time high. Triple-digit heat also hit Oregon and Washington, as well as the Plains states this month.

As if those readings were not inhospitable enough, there was 120°F in Yuma, Arizona, on June 19 and an even crazier 122°F in Palm Springs, California, on June 20. Needles, California, even tied its all-time record of 125°F on June 20. Not too surprisingly, the heat and dryness contributed to several large wildfires in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

June temperatures were the highest in 122 years of record-keeping from interior southern California into southern and eastern Utah. Statewide, Utah and Arizona notched their hottest Junes on record and, nationwide, the contiguous United States noted its warmest June.

The nation's third billion-dollar flood disaster evolved on June 22–24 as an area of severe thunderstorms tracked eastward across the Ohio Valley, spawning hail, high winds, tornadoes, and torrential rains. West Virginia experienced its third deadliest flash flood of record when up to 10 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours on June 23. Twenty-three people lost their lives from the flooding.

Torrential rains in even a shorter time period led to a historic flash flood on July 30 that wrecked the main street of Ellicott City, just west of Baltimore, Maryland. In just 2 hours that evening, a thunderstorm inundated the city with 5.96 inches of rain. The NWS called it a thousand-year flood, referring to the recurrence interval for such rains.

Other areas of the country experienced severe thunderstorms and flooding during July and August. Winds gusted to 70 mph in Phoenix on July 29, for example, while a thunderstorm stirred up a dust storm and pummeled the area with hail and heavy rain. Torrential rains also struck from central Minnesota to northwestern Wisconsin on July 11–12, with eight- to 10-inch totals setting off flooding that brought record river crests to Wisconsin.

There was more record heat in July from California to the East Coast. One interesting tidbit: on July 25, all three Washington, D.C.-area airports recorded maximum temperatures of 100°F. In August, Reagan-National Airport tied long-term Washington, D.C., records on three consecutive days (August 12, 13, 14; 99°F, 101°F, and 100°F). Farther north (much farther north), in Alaska, both Anchorage and Kenai recorded their warmest months on record in July.

The heat and lingering drought contributed to several large wildfires in the West during the summer, the most notable being the “Soberanes” fire, northwest of Big Sur in California. Started by an illegal campfire on July 22, the fire was not contained until October 12 after 132,127 acres had burned. The flames destroyed 68 structures and led to one death. This was the state's 18th largest fire of record (back to 1932).

Once again, James Taylor's refrain, “I've Seen Fire and I've Seen Rain,” comes to mind when discussing this summer's weather. The fourth inland billion-dollar flood episode was truly an historic event. The oddity was that this was not really an organized weather system; the August surface weather maps depicted a weak low inching westward along the Gulf Coast. “A rogue vortex operating in a near-infinite water supply, creating unimaginably high water for many thousands of people” was the apt description by Jeffrey B. Halverson (Weatherwise, August 2016 Highlight). Whatever it was, it triggered startling rainfall amounts in central and southern Louisiana during August 9–16, with most of the rain falling on August 12–13. Measuring 10 inches of rain in a single day is rare enough, but 10 inches in consecutive days? Lafayette, Louisiana, recorded 10.39 inches on the August 12 followed by 10.40 inches the next day. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the location of some of the worst flooding, reported 12.07 inches in 24 hours on August 12–13 and a spectacular monthly total of 30.04 inches, shattering all previous records. Several feet of floodwaters left many homes and businesses nearly submerged, as rivers rose to 14 feet above flood stage. Thirteen people died, and economic costs ranged from $10–15 billion. The flooding damaged or inundated over 100,000 homes.

Later on, Hurricane Matthew tracked northward off the coast of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas during October 6–9, briefly making landfall in South Carolina at Category 1 strength on October 8. The storm caused widespread damage from wind, storm surge, and flooding, with the greatest impacts from historical flooding over interior North Carolina, where rainfall totaled 4–15 inches across a broad expanse. The storm was blamed for 49 deaths in the United States, including 28 in North Carolina. Economic costs neared $10 billion.

Earlier, Category 1 Hurricane Hermine made landfall in Florida's Big Bend region on September 2, officially rated at 80 mph. The storm quickly weakened to a tropical storm, but pounded an area from Florida to the coastal Carolinas and southeastern Virginia with 40–60 mph wind gusts and heavy rains. Preceding the storm's landfall, portions of Pinellas County in the western peninsula of Florida measured 15–20 inches of rain.

Fall Warmth

September was abnormally warm across the East, followed by more expansive heat in October, which felt more like summer for much of the nation. Indeed, the nation recorded its warmest September–November in 122 years of record-keeping.

Hot, dry weather worsened drought that had been evolving for much of the year in the southern Appalachians and northern Gulf States. A remarkably dry October greatly worsened the drought, as some locations such as Birmingham, Alabama, experienced no measurable rainfall during the entire month. October–November saw widespread wildfires over western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee.

The deadliest and most destructive wildfire this year was the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee. Strong winds on November 28 rapidly spread flames across the mountains above and around Gatlinburg. By evening, the fire reached downtown Gatlinburg, resulting in the evacuation of over 14,000 people. By December 4, the fire had consumed 17,000 acres. Fourteen people died, and over 2,400 structures burned. Ironically, a severe weather outbreak on November 29–30 caused additional damage in the region and six deaths in Alabama. The thunderstorms eased drought somewhat, but parts of the region saw drought persist into 2017.

Drought also evolved during the year in the Northeast, peaking in New England around October. The dryness was the most intense and extensive since 2002, resulting in low water supplies. An early snow on November 20–21 brought over a foot of snow to parts of New England, marking the start of a wetter and colder pattern that eased the drought.

December contrasted sharply with the previous months. Cold and snow hit much of the country. Minot, North Dakota, recorded a minimum temperature of –21°F, for example, on December 10. Chicago dipped to 2°F on December 13th. A New England snowstorm buried much of Maine with 20–27 inches of snow on December 28–30, and western storms got the winter of 2016–2017 off to a wet and snowy start, further relieving drought in California. A late December blizzard on the southern High Plains may have killed 30,000 or more head of cattle.

Despite the switch to much colder weather in December, the contiguous United States had its second warmest year on record, second only to 2012. Alaska had its warmest year. The uniformity of the warmth was very unusual, as every state in the Lower 48 ranked in the top seven. This was the 14th wettest year overall. Minnesota and Wisconsin experienced their second wettest years, while Connecticut had its fourth driest year.

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

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