Extreme weather happens every day somewhere in the world, and 2016 certainly brought its fair share of record heat, flooding and storms. With 2016 now in the rearview mirror, here’s a look at the 10 most notable weather events that occurred beyond our shores last year.
1. Rare January hurricanes — Alex and Pali
Last year started off with a rare hurricane spinning in the eastern North Atlantic. In the second week of January 2016, subtropical storm Alex morphed into a full-fledged Category 1 hurricane a few hundred miles south of the Azores. With maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, it was the first Atlantic hurricane to form in January since 1938, and only the third January hurricane on record.
Alex had only minor effects as it hit the Azores as a tropical storm, but it will be remembered as one of the more unusual weather events of the year.
At the same time that Alex formed in the Atlantic, Hurricane Pali became the earliest named storm on record in the central Pacific. It was the first documented case of two simultaneous storms in the Pacific and Atlantic basins during January. Well-above-normal sea surface temperatures as a result of El Niño and climate warming helped trigger the rare duo of storms.
2. Tropical Cyclone Winston strikes Fiji
In late February, Category 5 tropical cyclone Winston ravaged the island nation of Fiji in the South Pacific. With sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts up to 225 mph, it was the strongest storm to make landfall in Fiji’s history and possibly the strongest on record in the Southern Hemisphere.
The storm took an unusual path, twice striking the Tongan island of Vava’u before rapidly intensifying on its westward approach toward Fiji.
Winston killed 44 people and devastated Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. The $1.4 billion economic impact made it the costliest cyclone on record in the South Pacific, surpassing the previous record set by tropical cyclone Pam the previous year.
3. Fort McMurray wildfire prompts mass evacuation
In early May, unseasonably hot weather in western Canada triggered a raging wildfire in Fort McMurray, on the tar sands of northern Alberta. The blaze forced all of the city’s 80,000 residents to evacuate and became Canada’s largest mandatory wildfire evacuation on record.
When it was finally contained weeks later, the fire had spread across 1.5 million acres and destroyed 2,400 homes. Amazingly, no lives were lost. However, with damages totaling nearly $4 billion, the fire was Canada’s costliest natural disaster in history.
The Fort McMurray fire was notable for occurring weeks ahead of the normal peak fire season. After a mild winter with below-normal snowfall, temperatures reached a record 91 degrees the week the fire began burning out of control — about 30 degrees higher than normal for early May.
4. Seine River floods Paris
Historic flooding inundated parts of France and Germany in late May and early June after days of record-breaking rainfall.
An upper-level low-pressure system that formed over central Europe drew warm, moist air from the Mediterranean northward, and caused days of torrential downpours and thunderstorms. A record seven inches of rain fell over the Paris region in May, much of it during the final week of the month.
In central Paris, the Seine River crested more than 20 feet above normal, the highest level in 34 years. The Louvre and other museums were closed to visitors to move and protect valuable artwork from rising floodwaters.
Heavy rain also hit neighboring Germany, where flash floods killed several people in Bavaria as rivers breached their banks and inundated several towns and villages. The cost of the disaster in the affected countries is estimated at more than $5 billion.
5. Monsoon floods kill more than 500 in China
Torrential monsoon rains in eastern China caused the worst flooding there in nearly 20 years. The floods were a long-duration weather event, unfolding over a two-month period that began with the annual East Asian monsoon rains in May. By mid-July, some areas of the Yangtze River basin had received about two feet of rain over a 30-day period, according to Weather Underground. In the southeastern city of Wuhan, more than seven inches of rain fell over a 12-hour period.
The floods destroyed 145,000 homes and killed more than 500 people. By November, economic losses had reached $28 billion, making it the world’s costliest weather disaster of the year and China’s second costliest on record — behind only China’s 1998 river floods.
6. Kuwait soars to 129.2 degrees
There was no shortage of new heat milestones in 2016, including the globe’s hottest year on record (see No. 9 below). Yet a few records stand out in particular.
One occurred in the Middle East this summer. On July 21, Mitribah, Kuwait, soared to 129.2 degrees (54°C). It was the highest temperature ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere (and possibly the world). A day later, the temperature reached 129 degrees in Basra, Iraq — also among the highest reliably measured temperatures ever recorded.
These heat records were the pinnacle of a very warm year across much of the Middle East and South/Southeast Asia. In April, new national heat records were set in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, said weather historian Christopher Burt from Weather Underground.
7. Super Typhoon Meranti
In mid-September, super typhoon Meranti formed in the western Pacific. Packing sustained winds of 190 mph (the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane), Meranti became the strongest storm on Earth in 2016. At its peak intensity, the storm had a central pressure of 890 mb, which ranked it among the lowest storm pressures on record.
Despite Meranti’s destructive power, human and economic losses from the storm were not as bad as feared. Remarkably, Meranti’s eye crossed over the Philippine island of Itbayat at peak strength, yet all of the island’s 3,000 residents were spared. As it crossed the island, Meranti’s 190 mph sustained winds matched those of 2013 super typhoon Haiyan, tying the record for Earth’s strongest recorded tropical cyclone at landfall, according to Weather Underground.
8. Hurricane Matthew kills more than 500 in Haiti, displaces 175,000
Hurricane Matthew was no doubt a destructive U.S. weather event. However, its most devastating impacts were in Haiti, where the storm made landfall as a Category 4 storm and dumped more than two feet of rain on the southwestern part of the country.
Matthew attained Category 5 strength at the lowest latitude on record in the Atlantic basin. It was also notable for maintaining at least Category 4 intensity for the longest duration in the eastern Caribbean, which gave the storm staying power as it barreled through Haiti and northward to the Bahamas.
The combination of heavy rain and strong winds in Haiti caused deadly mudslides and ravaged the country’s already weak infrastructure. The storm displaced more than 175,000 people, and months later, more than half a million people remain in urgent need of food and humanitarian aid.
Matthew killed at least 500 people in Haiti alone, although some estimates put the number closer to 1,000, making it the deadliest natural disaster of 2016.
9. Earth’s warmest year on record
Last year is all but certain to eclipse 2015 as the planet’s hottest year on record, setting a global temperature record for the third straight year. September 2016 marked the end of an unprecedented 16 consecutive months during which Earth’s average temperature hit record highs (including July, which was Earth’s all-time hottest month ever recorded).
The warmth of 2016 was persistent and widespread, especially in the Arctic (more on that below).
Although the record strong 2015-16 El Niño event — which ended in June this year — helped boost global temperatures, 2016’s record planetary heat coincides with soaring greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. In May, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached an all-time high, setting the stage for additional global temperature records in the future.
10. Off-the-charts Arctic warmth
Last year was a warm year for the planet, but nowhere were temperatures more unusually warm (relative to normal) than in the Arctic. Arctic sea ice extent set new monthly record lows in January, February, May, June, October and November. In June, the temperature in Nuuk, Greenland, reached 75 degrees (24°C), the highest ever recorded in all of Greenland for the month. And in September, sea ice extent fell to its second-lowest annual minimum, behind only 2012.
For much of the fall, the Arctic was absurdly warm compared to normal, which allowed sea ice to dwindle to new monthly lows.
In November — a time of year when the area of sea ice normally expands — an unprecedented 19,000 square miles of ice melted in less than a week. And just before Christmas, temperatures in the Arctic hit the freezing mark, which were an astonishing 40 to 50 degrees above normal for the time of year.
Continued melting of Arctic sea ice may have long-term impacts on mid-latitude weather patterns. So gear up for more extreme weather events across the world in 2017.