“Extreme weather” might just as easily be called “normal weather” after the parades of destruction witnessed in the United States during 2011 and 2012. As the hottest year on record in the 48 contiguous states, 2012 set more than 15,000 local warm-temperature records in March alone. The worst drought since the 1930s ravaged the Midwest. The largest hurricane on record, Sandy, reached an extent equivalent to about half the contiguous U.S., or 1 percent of the entire global ocean area, according to meteorologist Jeff Master of the news and information website, WeatherUnderground.com.
Climate scientists have predicted for years that global warming would bring more extreme weather.
This year, 11 U.S. disasters — pictured in the following slides — caused more than $1 billion in damage apiece.
Tornadoes tend to form in late March or April, but they descended early this year in the Ohio Valley and the Southeast U.S. “These were very strong, violent tornadoes,” said Greg Carbin, warning-coordinator meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
In March, 223 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., compared with a typical number of 80 for that month, according to NOAA. Forty-two people died in an outbreak of at least 75 tornadoes in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Hardest-hit on March 3 was Henryville, Indiana.
A school bus lodged in a home after being tossed by a tornado on March 3 in Henryville, Indiana.
Violent storms ripped through the Dallas-Fort Worth area in early April, including 22 tornadoes that peeled roofs from dozens of homes and spiraled big-rig trailers into the air like footballs. By April 5, airports had cancelled nearly 2,000 flights, with some planes sustaining “fairly significant damage” from hail.
Residents sift their belongings upstairs after a tornado ripped the roof off their home in Arlington, Texas, on April 3.
Six people died in mid-April as 98 confirmed tornadoes swept through Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa. Hundreds of homes were severely damaged or destroyed in Wichita, Kansas, Woodward, Oklahoma, and Thurman, Iowa.
An aerial view of destruction in the Oaklawn neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, on April 15.
Ice balls larger than four inches in diameter fell on Midwestern and Ohio Valley states from April 28 to May 1, when “straight-line” winds and at least 38 tornadoes drove into Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Texas and Kentucky.
A tornado is seen touching down in Grand Isle, La., on May 9, damaging several homes.
Twisters have historically formed in large numbers through a Midwestern corridor known as Tornado Alley. It stretches from central Texas to northern Iowa and from central Kansas and Nebraska to western Ohio, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Intense tornado activity that now stretches beyond the “alley” has “forced many insurance companies to rethink the way they assess natural hazard risk,” Howard Botts, a vice president of CoreLogic, wrote in a report in March.
Damage from a tornado on June 8, in Ramah, Colo. The twister was part of a powerful storm system that rolled through parts of Colorado and Wyoming, packing heavy rains, high winds and hail. The storms followed a round of nasty late spring weather that pummeled the region.
Steven Carpe sinks knee-deep in hail in the Citadel Mall’s southwest parking lot on June 7 after a storm hit Colorado Springs, Colorado. Snowplows were used in Douglas County to clear hail that collected up to 8 inches deep.
Severe weather brought a new word into Americans’ meteorological vocabulary in summer 2012. Meteorologists define a “derecho” as a land-based storm that has wind gusts of at least 58 miles per hour and causes damage along a path at least 240 miles long. Eleven states from Illinois to South Carolina and north to New Jersey were affected by a derecho in late June. Winds reached 91 miles per hour — nearly as fast as winds in a Category Two hurricane. Twenty-eight people died in the storm.
An American beech tree lies on Capitol Hill grounds in Washington on June 30 in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Presidential candidates typically emerge from their nominating conventions to campaign in states that will be intensely contested in the general election. Instead, Republican nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney left the party’s Tampa convention for New Orleans to visit a community flooded from storm surges created by Hurricane Isaac.
Isaac came ashore in Louisiana as a Category One hurricane, with winds higher than 74 mph, turning southern Louisiana into a miles-long pond of brackish, foul-smelling floodwaters. Snakes, birds and a lot of livestock raised by a handful of ranching families drowned in Isaac’s storm surge, which overwhelmed the weak levees protecting this farm country (left) south of New Orleans.
Cows are seen stranded in floodwater after Hurricane Isaac came through the region in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on Aug. 30.
Wildfires in Colorado burned down more than 600 homes and cost insurers $450 million, making 2012 the costliest season for blazes in the state’s history. New Mexico suffered its worst-ever fires in May and June.
“This is a scary trend,” Bloomberg View editors wrote on July 16. “In the 1960s, Colorado had about 460 fires a year that burned an average of 8,000 acres, according to a report compiled from state forest service records. In the past 10 years, the state averaged about 2,500 fires a year that consumed about 100,000 acres.”
Smoke billows from a wildfire west of Colorado Springs on June 23.
The worst drought since the 1930s affected more than half the U.S. for most of 2012, particularly Great Plains states that are central to the nation’s agriculture. About 60 percent of the country remained in moderate-to-extreme drought conditions at the end of November, according to NOAA. “Crop insurance was a savior this year,” Kyle Wendland, a farmer near Fredericksburg, Iowa, told Bloomberg News. “It was the difference between making a profit or sustaining a loss.”
A canoe sits in July on a dock in a dry section of the Morse Reservoir in Cicero, Indiana, one of three reservoirs that supply water to nearby Indianapolis.
“Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change” wrote Paul Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek in his post-Sandy cover story, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” “Men and women in white lab coats tell us — and they’re right — that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.
“Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it: At least 40 U.S. deaths. Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.”
Debris from houses destroyed during Hurricane Sandy clog streets and yards in Union Beach, New Jersey on Saturday, Nov. 3.
This map shows the location of the most destructive weather events in the U.S. in 2012. The deeper the color, the greater the impact. Last year’s 11 disasters causing greater than $1 billion in damage are fewer than the 14 that occurred in 2011, but the nation’s total economic losses are expected to be higher, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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