The 5 top U.S. weather stories of 2013

Tornado passes across south Oklahoma City, Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Paul Hellstern)

Tornado passes across south Oklahoma City, Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Paul Hellstern)

In the United States, the major weather stories of 2013 are somewhat contradictory. One the one hand, several horrible weather events occurred, from violent tornadoes in Oklahoma to record wildfires in the West to “biblical flooding” in Colorado. But the year also brought the fewest tornadoes in recent memory and a largely absent Atlantic hurricane season.

Overall, 2013 is likely to finish with 8 billion dollar weather disasters in the U.S., down from 11 in 2012 and 13 in 2011 but up from the 4 in 2010 and 6 in 2009.

Here are my selections for 5 biggest weather events of 2013 in the United States, presented in no particular order:

5 – Relatively low number of tornadoes and hurricanes

One of the most notable weather events of 2013 turned out to be a lack thereof. The year saw both a relatively low number of tornadoes and one big flop of an Atlantic hurricane season.

(National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center)

(National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center)

As of December 21, the Storm Prediction Center only lists 934 confirmed tornadoes (with more likely as crews survey the damage from Saturday’s severe weather), coming in well below the 2005-2013 running average of 1453 tornadoes per year. While this is the lowest number of tornadoes seen since 2002, which also saw 934 tornadoes, this isn’t the least active season on record: 1989 and 1987 each respectively saw only 856 and 656 confirmed tornadoes.

Switching to the tropics, the once-promising hurricane season whimpered out pretty quickly. Most long-term hurricane outlooks predicted an active to very active season. But overall activity was only about 30 percent of average, reflected by the formation of a measly 2 hurricanes (neither of which exceeded Category 1 intensity).

Why did the season peter out? CWG’s tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy explained surprisingly large quantities of dry and stable air, among other factors, conspired to suppress hurricane activity.

While the relative lack of tornadoes and hurricanes may seem a little more than unusual, Jason Samenow cautioned back in September not to read too much into the inactivity:

More broadly: what does this relatively quiet severe storm season signify? Not much in my view. There’s a ton of year-to-year variability in storminess – so I chalk up the inactivity to this just being a random down year.

4 – The October surprise (South Dakota blizzard)

(National Weather Service)

(National Weather Service)

This cold season started out with a bang as an unusually potent blizzard dumped over four feet of snow on parts of Wyoming and South Dakota on October 6. The storm deposited a jaw-dropping 58 inches of snow in Beulah, SD and produced Rapid City’s second-largest snowfall on record, clocking in at just a hair under two feet.

The storm was devastating for ranchers, killing about 14,000 cattle according to reports.

The blizzard highlighted the dedication and tenacity of the National Weather Service meteorologists who work at the Rapid City, SD office. Even as the blizzard occurred during the height of the Federal government shutdown, these essential Federal employees hiked to work through the snow and even slept in the office to provide emergency weather information to the residents in their forecast area.

In an interview, Carpenter said four forecasters remained at the office between Friday and Sunday morning, taking cat naps while rotating on and off duty.

“Nobody got a lot of sleep,” Carpenter said. “Just enough to keep us going as best we could.”

The forecaster who covered the Saturday midnight shift trekked an hour through massive drifts in the pitch dark to report to work.

“He’s a pretty hearty soul,” Carpenter said. “The drifts came up to the roof of a Ford F-150 pickup truck in our parking lot.”

Both the historic nature of the blizzard, its impacts on agriculture, and the dedication of the meteorologists who predicted it secure this October surprise on the list of top weather events of 2013.

3 – Western wildfires and drought

This past year saw two of the worst wildfires in United States history in Colorado’s Black Forest Fire and California’s Rim Fire. The Black Forest Fire was the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history, burning over 14,000 acres of land and destroying over 500 homes. The fire burned for 10 days before crews were able to completely contain the inferno.

Two states to the west and two months later, another wildfire broke out in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Rim Fire grew into California’s third largest wildfire on record, starting in mid-August and burning for over two months before crews were finally able to contain it in late October.

As with most wildfires, both the Rim and Black Forest fires were likely ignited by humans. Low relative humidity (dry air), record heat (Death Valley hit 129, the highest temperature ever recorded in June in the U.S.)  and strong winds allowed these two fires to grow from small blazes into monsters.

As Jason Samenow posted back in August, the National Park Service took some pretty incredible time lapse footage of the Rim Fire as it consumed acre after acre.

One of the worst wildfires of the year by far was the Yarnell Hill Fire that was sparked by a lightning storm in central Arizona on June 28. The fire quickly spread charring over 8,000 acres of land.

The fire is notable for being the deadliest in Arizona state history after 19 firefighters were killed. A report released at the end of September noted that the firefighters were attempting to move to a safe zone when they were overtaken by the flames. The firefighters were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a highly-trained group of firefighters from the Prescott AZ fire department.

That fire was eventually contained after burning for 13 days.

Severe to extreme drought conditions in much of the West acted as a backdrop for all of these fires.  2013 is likely to close as the driest on record in California according to Weather Underground weather historian Christopher Burt. Both downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco are also likely to have their driest years.

2 – Colorado flooding

(Colorado National Guard)

(Colorado National Guard)

Colorado couldn’t catch a break this year. Right on the heels of their massive wildfires and record heat, the eastern half of the state experienced an incredible period of intense rainfall that led to devastating flooding. Boulder saw over 17 inches of rain by the end of the deluge, giving the city 85 percent of its yearly rainfall in less than two weeks.

(National Weather Service)

(National Weather Service)

The record rainfall occurred because of warm, moist air pumping into Colorado from the south clashing with a stalled frontal boundary sitting over the northeastern part of the state. When this unstable air hit both the elevated terrain and the frontal boundary, it lifted and created thunderstorms that hardly moved. This happened day in and day out for almost two weeks, leading to historic floods across the region; the Big Thompson River measured a record crest of 10.55 feet during the height of the flooding disaster.

The floods ultimately killed 8 people and caused over one billion dollars in damages, making it one of the costliest disasters of the year.

1 – Oklahoma tornadoes

Even though the tornado season was relatively quiet overall, the year saw several intense tornadoes that made their way into the record books. The first and most devastating tornado that occurred this year was the EF-5 twister that swept through Moore, Okla. on May 20.

A base reflectivity and base velocity radar image showing the tornado entering Moore on the afternoon of May 20 2013. (GR2Analyst)

A base reflectivity and base velocity radar image showing the tornado entering Moore on the afternoon of May 20 2013. (GR2Analyst)

The storm that ultimately produced the tornado transformed from a small shower into a dangerous supercell in less than an hour, but thanks to the advanced warning issued by the National Weather Service in Norman, the public was acutely aware of the risk this day.

The first 10 minutes of the Moore EF5 Tornado (5/20/2013)

Link: Astonishing video of Moore, Okla. tornado: From little swirl to gargantuan monster

After National Weather Service meteorologists personally surveyed the damage left behind by the storm, they determined that the tornado was a rare top-of-the-scale EF-5, estimating that the twister had 210 mph winds based on the complete destruction of Briarwood Elementary School in Moore. The tornado was especially devastating in that 7 children were killed in Plaza Towers Elementary School after the school took a direct hit. 24 people lost their lives in the tornado, making the storm the deadliest since the Joplin, MO tornado two years earlier that killed 158.

Vehicles are seen among rubble in front of the medical center in Moore on May 31, 2013. (Ian Livingston)

Vehicles are seen among rubble in front of the medical center in Moore on May 31, 2013. (Ian Livingston)

While the tornado in Moore was easily the most devastating tornado that occurred in 2013, just a week and a half later, a record-breaking tornado touched down a few dozen miles to the west in El Reno. The tornado reached 2.6 miles wide at its largest point, making it the largest tornado ever recorded.

The tornado itself caused relatively few points of damage, leading National Weather Service crews to assign it an EF-3 rating based on the structures it did hit. However, a mobile Doppler radar recorded winds of nearly 300 MPH, leading the NWS to re-assign the tornado an EF-5 rating. At the end of August, however, the NWS once again reversed its previous decision by re-re-assigning the tornado an EF-3 rating. The agency defended its decision by asserting that the Enhanced Fujita Scale uses damage to estimate the intensity of a tornado, and survey crews only found EF-3 damage regardless of the velocities that the mobile radar estimated.

The El Reno tornado is also notable for the tragic deaths of three meteorologists who were chasing the storm at the time. Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and Carl Young were all killed when the tornado swept up the car they were riding in and deposited it in a field several hundred yards away from the road. Brantley Hargrove wrote an excellent piece for the Dallas Observer paying tribute to their lives and final chase: The Last Ride of Legendary Storm Chaser Tim Samaras

The Weather Channel also had a crew chasing the El Reno tornado, and they too were swept off the road when the tornado suddenly changed direction and ran into them. Their crew, including on-camera meteorologist Mike Bettes, received minor injuries in the terrifying incident. The actions of the TWC crew and their fellow storm chasers caught some criticism from fellow meteorologists, and sparked debate how close these storms should be pursued.

Honorable Mention –

Sharknado

(SyFy)

(SyFy)

This cheesy z-list Syfy movie turned into a weather event of its own this past summer, prompting an unexpected social media circus around this incredible work of self-parody. The movie, starring Tara Reed and Ian Ziering, was as hilariously bad as the movie poster suggests.

Cleaning product commercials featuring that lovable 92-year-old couple have a deeper plot line than Sharknado: A freak hurricane in the Pacific Ocean (caused by climate change, of course) drives a pod of sharks up the coast of California. A waterspout spawned by the hurricane sucks up these sharks creating the eponymous sharknado, which proceeds to sweep ashore and terrorizes people with bad CGI (computer-generated imagery) for two hours.

Thankfully, Sharknado was like the Harlem Shake of television movies. It came out of nowhere, lasted a week, and then disappeared. Even though I secretly loved just how awful it was, the Twitter responses alone were well worth it.

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry if you missed it. Syfy announced that “Sharknado 2: The Second One” is slated to come out this July. The movie is sure to be a smash hit with such a clever title. Hopefully it’s good enough to get another honorable mention in 2014.

Additional honorable mentions:

New England blizzard, February 8-9 (Nemo)

November 17 tornado outbreak (Midwest)

(Jason Samenow contributed to this report)

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