December 29, 2011

Kansas experiences a year of eye-popping weather extremes

From the deadliest year for tornadoes in decades to a heat wave so intense and enduring that Wichita and several other Great Plains cities broke records for most 100-degree days, 2011’s weather seared itself into our nation’s collective memory.

From the deadliest year for tornadoes in decades to a heat wave so intense and enduring that Wichita and several other Great Plains cities broke records for most 100-degree days, 2011’s weather seared itself into our nation’s collective memory.

Wichita even set a record for largest gap between the year’s lowest and highest temperatures: 128 degrees.

“Clearly, for me, the tornadoes were the big story this year,” said Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions in Wichita.

And for good reason: The 552 people killed nationwide by tornadoes this year is the most in 75 years.

“I don’t think anybody could anticipate that could happen in the modern era,” said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.

This year’s tornado-deaths total matches 1936 and trails only 1925 in the archives.

Smith called the 552 deaths “a staggering number.”

Yet 99 percent of this year’s tornado-related deaths occurred in locations that were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning, Smith said.

Sometimes those warnings were not received because of something such as a power outage. Sometimes the information simply wasn’t acted upon, he said. And sometimes people just couldn’t get to shelter in time.

Still, Smith said, if not for such accurate watches and warnings, the tornado death toll for 2011 could easily have topped 3,000.

There are other sobering numbers linked to tornadoes this year, officials say:

The 199 tornadoes that touched down on April 27 during a massive outbreak in the deep South is the most ever recorded on a single day, according to NOAA statistics.

The 343 tornadoes confirmed from April 25 to 28 from Alabama to Virginia is the largest outbreak ever recorded.

April’s 748 tornadoes is a record for a single month.

Carbin called April a nightmare.

Though final statistics have not been compiled, 2011 could set the record for tornadoes in one year, Carbin said.

“The record year is around 1,900,” he said. “We’re going to be pretty close.”

The May 22 tornado that hit Joplin — which had top sustained winds of more than 200 mph, thus earning an EF5 rating, the highest on the Enhanced Fujita scale measuring tornado wind speeds – caused more than $1 billion in insured damage. That makes it the single costliest twister in U.S. history. With a death toll of 158, it’s the seventh-deadliest in American history.

So many major metropolitan areas were hit this year that author and storm chaser Jenna Blum coined the term “metronado.”

“You had so many strong tornadoes in densely populated areas,” Smith said. “They were densely populated areas where they didn’t have basements.”

That’s a key detail, he said. An EF4 tornado with sustained winds of more than 166 mph struck St. Louis on Good Friday last spring, yet no fatalities were recorded. No mobile home parks were hit, he said, and most homes in St. Louis have basements.

“When you have a warning system and you have a place for people to go, the death toll is very low,” he said.

Not just tornadoes

The extreme weather wasn’t limited to tornadoes.

Texas was hit with the most intense drought in the 117 years of the Palmer Drought Index’s existence.

Numerous cities in the southern Plains shattered records for most days with triple-digit temperatures. Wichita had 53 100-degree days, toppling 1936 from the top of the list.

With 19 tropical storms in the Atlantic, 2011 is the third-busiest season since record keeping began in 1851.

Historic flooding occurred along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, fueled in part by three times the amount of average precipitation in the Ohio Valley.

Carbin said scientists are observing “a discernible upward trend in extreme precipitation events” and that the record drought, heat and wildfires of 2011 are linked to the warming of the planet.

“It is probable that these types of events will be longer in duration and more frequent in the years ahead,” he said.

But Carbin and other weather officials said no link has been found between a warming planet and more frequent tornadoes and hurricanes.

Ken Cook, a meteorologist with the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service, said 2011 generated far more questions than answers.

“The way climate behaves is just really not well understood,” Cook said. “I really don’t think there’s a really clear reason as to why this happened.”

Until this year, the largest gap between high and low temperature in one year in Wichita was 126 degrees in 1899.

But the temperature fell to minus 17 on Feb. 10 and climbed to 111 on three different days during a record-breaking summer.

As meteorologists and weather scientists pore over the data, Smith’s wish for the coming year is hardly surprising.

“I hope,” he said, “that things are calmer in 2012.”

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