A Year of “Extreme” (Duration) Disasters

This year has been interesting in a number of ways from a meteorological standpoint. It’s been tragic from a human standpoint…and it’s been extreme. And I’m not talking about what you may think. The disasters of 2011 have been, for the most part, either extremely quick to occur…or painfully slow. Tornadoes? Almost instantaneous. But drought and river flooding? Slow enough to the point where a lot of meteorologists call them “boring.”

Hydrograph/Forecast of river levels on the Missouri at Williston: http://water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=bis&gage=wltn8&view=1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1%22

We’ve had the flood on the Mississippi already. But in progress at present is another extreme flood, this time on the Missouri River. To the left is the hydrograph and forecast from the Missouri at Williston, ND…already at a record level and only forecasted to rise further.┬áThis winter has been a perfect storm for this sort of setup. With one of the strongest La Ninas in recent memory in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, snowpack was high in the Upper Midwest (not unusual). The melt of that, combined with a period of extreme rains from March and April’s severe weather helped push the Mississippi to record levels. La Ninas also traditionally hammer the Northwest US with heavy snowfall. This year was a late bloomer, but when it hit, it didn’t stop from late February through mid to late May. That melt in the Northern Rockies is helping to fuel this record flooding scenario. The meteorological factors coming together this past winter/spring have really not happened since the 70s and possibly not to this level since the 30s or 20s…so it’s not a huge surprise that years from those decades are the years a lot of these records were set.

Speaking of the 30s…similar factors seen in the Dust Bowl era seem to be helping to fuel the epic drought in the Southern US this year.

US Drought Monitor's Map of Texas from Today

The map to the right shows the drought in Texas. The D4 (exceptional drought) area from the US Drought Monitor is currently in place across an uncanny 57.83% of Texas. These are tremendously high numbers that will likely only continue to get worse unless a tropical system impacts the entire state (because I don’t think daily isolated thunderstorm activity is going to really help this). D4 areas are also present across Louisiana, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, and New Mexico. With that La Nina, while northern parts of the country bask in precip and snow, the South usually ends up dry. Western Arizona into Southern California were a notable exception this year, but from Eastern Arizona (where the tremendous wildfires are currently burning) through West Texas, the La Nina helped to serve up dry misery.

These events are certainly troubling and certainly tough to swallow, especially if you live in those areas. But they are really far from unusual. They have happened in the past and will likely happen again in the future. The law of averages in weather:

Normal = ((Negative Extremes + Positive Extremes) / Number of Events)

There is no such thing as “normal” weather. While droughts and floods may be slow moving and “boring” though, they are costly, miserable disasters.

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Raleigh, Tuscaloosa/Birmingham, Joplin….Springfield, MA

2011: Raleigh, NC….Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, AL…Joplin, MO…Springfield, MA
1953: Flint, MI…Worcester, MA…Waco, TX

Not much to say about this…it was awe-inspiring to watch as it happened yesterday, and it happened in an area I’m very familiar with, so it hit close to home. But a couple words on it….

Tornadoes don’t have personality….they don’t pick and choose to destroy some houses and spare others. They don’t choose to form on certain days and choose not to on others. If the right ingredients come together over any given location, a tornado can develop. And in 1953 and now in 2011, it’s just so happened that several of the areas impacted by tornadoes have been large communities and unfortunately they’ve been large tornadoes in many cases.

Weather Scope App for iPad image of Doppler Velocity near Monson, MA

If Springfield, MA should teach you one thing, it’s this: It does not matter where you live or what you remember or were taught about the weather in your town: If the right set of ingredients comes together at the right time, a large, destructive tornado can develop and can do serious, life threatening damage. What you see on the left…that’s something straight out of the Midwest or Plains. But that’s over Massachusetts. It can happen to you, and yesterday is a textbook example of why you need to pay attention when warnings are issued. If you take one lesson from it…that’s the one.

In the end, I think we’re looking at a solid stripes of EF-3 damage in between widespread EF-1/2. The radar presentation of this thing was as good as anything I’ve seen this spring, and hands down the most well developed supercell I’ve ever seen on radar in the Northeast, so it has the potential to be an EF-4 in a few spots… especially near where this radar image was taken. It was at its best (worst) I believe between Monson and Southbridge. But we’ll see. NWS Boston won’t have an official answer until tomorrow it appears.

Pick of the Weekend

Just trying something new here. My pick of the weekend is the Pacific Northwest. After months of rain and misery, at least a couple nice days are on top with 80s likely in Portland Saturday and upper 70s in Seattle as well into Sunday. As long as the dry, offshore flow develops as expected, it could be a chamber of commerce type weekend in the Northwest. Long overdue!

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