Episode Four – Weather Events of 2020

English Transcript

Próximamente transcripción en español

Production team: Elizabeth Smith, Pat Hyland, and Ross Forsyth
Logo design and English transcription: Kathryn Geauer

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From the National Weather Museum and Science Center in Norman, Oklahoma, this is When Did the Storm Begin, a podcast bringing the history of weather to the forefront. My name is Pat Hyland, Vice Chair of the National Weather Museum & Science Center.

Today’s Episode: The Weather Events of 2020

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Just the mere utterance of that conjures up so many different thoughts and emotions.

2020 was certainly an especially challenging year, as the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in tens of millions of positive cases and millions of deaths worldwide, forever changed the way we live, work, and interact. Wearing a mask and social distancing became the norm. Toilet paper and Clorox disinfecting wipes were sometimes harder to find than the new Playstation 5. Gatherings were cancelled and replaced with virtual hangouts using Zoom, Google Meet, and other virtual platforms. Several racially-charged events occurred that led to a resurgence in examining systemic racism in our culture. The US had the largest turnout for an election in 120 years, with two-thirds of the voting-eligible population using mail-in ballots and in-person voting to select the next president. Sports managed to continue inside empty stadia and arenas, and sometimes using isolated bubbles in chosen cities.

2020 was not without it’s notable weather events either.

Join me today as we review the notable weather events that impacted the United States during 2020.

January 2020

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Where was winter? For January, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 35.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average, ranking fifth warmest in the 126-year record. This was the ninth consecutive January with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average for the month.

Winter was was in Alaska! Alaska had one of their coldest winters in 21 years!

Temperatures during the first part of winter were warm enough across the Great Lakes to keep surface water temperatures above freezing across a large portion of the basin. As a result, lake-effect snow events become possible much later in the season than on average, which can lead to higher seasonal snowfall totals.

February 2020

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February was a tale of two winters, with Alaska continuing it’s record cold with the coldest February they’ve had in over 20 years, while Hawaii had one of their warmest winters on record. It was also particularly wet across the US. The winter of 2020 had the most extreme wet conditions on record, with much-above-average to record precipitation observed from the Southeast into the Great Lakes, but below-average precipitation out west.

March 2020

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Powerful EF-3 and EF-4 tornadoes caused considerable damage across the Nashville metroplex and several counties east of Nashville. This damage included many homes, businesses, vehicles, 90 planes and numerous buildings at the Nashville airport. There was also additional hail and wind damage in the surrounding states including Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri. Overall, this event resulted in $2.5 billion in damage. Studies have shown (Gensini and Brooks (2018)) that this particular region of the CONUS has had an increase in tornado environments and reports in recent decades, with Tennessee experiencing more killer tornadoes at night than any other state.

At the same time, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 46.1 degrees Fahrenheit, 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. This ranked as the 10th warmest March in the 126-year period of record.

April 2020

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With a reduction in air traffic and automobile traffic due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Air Quality Index (AQI) greatly improved, especially within large metropolitan areas. Commercial aircraft are instrumented to collect additional meteorological observations of the atmosphere during their transits, which can be incorporated into weather prediction models to better predict weather patterns. How did the dropoff in aircraft traffic impact meteorological observations? There’s still a lot of work left to be done to study this, but there were less upper-air observations due to the coronavrius.

Boulder, Colorado broke the record for its snowiest season since 1909 with 152 inches of snow. Meanwhile, drought conditions out west continued to intensify.

May 2020

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Tropical storms Arthur and Bertha formed on May 16 and 27, respectively, which is a record sixth consecutive season for at least one named storm to form in the North Atlantic Basin before the official start of the hurricane season on June 1. It certainly seemed like a signal that we were in for a very active hurricane season.

May had the fewest number of severe weather reports since May 2014 as well as the fewest number of tornadoes and EF2+ tornadoes reported since at least 1970. That certainly doesn’t mean that May was without it’s severe weather. In fact, severe thunderstorms in Burkburnett, Texas on May 22 produced grapefruit-sized hail, with a reported hailstone of 5.3 inches.

June 2020

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On June 6, a rare Rockies derecho brought severe thunderstorms and damaging winds in a line from Utah to Wyoming and across Colorado into the Dakotas. A derecho also occurred three days before from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the drought and warm temperatures continued out west, with fires raging in the mountains. The Bush Fire in Arizona consumed 193,000 acres, making it the fifth largest wildfire in Arizona history.

July 2020

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The 2020 hurricane season was off to a fast start. Tropical Storm Edouard became the earliest 5th named storm, followed by Tropical Storm Fay, the earliest 6th named storm, followed by Hurricane Hanna, the earliest 8th named storm, and finally Hurricane Isaias, the earliest 9th named storm. Isaias caught the nation’s attention not only because of the difficulty of correct pronunciation, but also because it spawned more than 50 tornadoes and impacted the US from Puerto Rico all the way to Massachusetts. There was even a Category 1 Hurricane (Douglas) that narrowly missed landfall in Hawaii.

August 2020

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A powerful derecho traveled from southeast South Dakota to Ohio, a path of 770 miles in 14 hours producing widespread winds greater than 100 mph. The states most affected included Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio. This derecho caused widespread damage to millions of acres of corn and soybean crops across central Iowa. There was also severe damage to homes, businesses and vehicles particularly in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In addition, there were 15 tornadoes across northeastern Illinois several affecting the Chicago metropolitan area. Overall, $7.5 billion in damage was reported. According to the NOAA NWS Storm Prediction Center, this day of the Iowa Derecho was the 2nd highest day of severe weather reports for all of 2020.

The Louisiana Coast was dealt two blows in August with Hurricanes Marco and Laura. On August 27, Hurricane Laura made landfall near Lake Charles, Louisiana as a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. This tied the 1856 Louisiana hurricane for the strongest landfalling winds on record for the state. Laura was also the 10th strongest US landfalling hurricane by wind speed on record. Hurricane Laura was so powerful that it damaged the Lake Charles, Louisiana Doppler weather radar. Luckily, researchers from the OU Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies and NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory were able to provide mobile radar assistance following the radar’s destruction.

The SCU and LNU Lightning Complex and the August Complex wildfires that burned in central and northern California, were the second-, third- and fourth-largest fires on record in California, respectively, and currently fall shy of the record Mendocino Complex fire of 2018, in which 459,123 acres were consumed.

The Pine Gulch wildfire, near Grand Junction, Colorado, was the largest wildfire in Colorado history with over 139,000 acres consumed. The previous record was held by the 2002 Hayman Fire.

September 2020

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Widespread, continuous drought and record heat affected more than a dozen Western and Central states for much of the summer and early fall. Death Valley recorded a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit – the highest measured temperature globally in decades – while Los Angeles county recorded a record high of 121 degrees Fahrenheit. The drought and heat also helped to dry out vegetation across the West that contributed to the Western wildfire potential and severity.

More than 4.0 million acres burned across California, breaking the statewide burn record set in 2018 by more than 2 million acres. Five of the top six largest wildfires on record in California (dating to 1932) burned during August and September. The August Complex is the largest California wildfire, which began as 37 separate wildfires within the Mendocino National Forest, set off after storms caused >10,000 lightning strikes across Northern California. Over 8,500 structures burned across California. Oregon also had historic levels of wildfire spread and damage, as over 2,000 structures burned. These wildfires spread rapidly and destroyed several small towns in California, Oregon and Washington. Dense wildfire smoke produced hazardous air quality affecting millions of people including major cities for weeks. Hundreds of additional wildfires also burned in other Western states.

Hurricane Sally made landfall as a category 2 hurricane in the Florida panhandle. Wind gusts up to 100 mph and 20-30 inches of rainfall caused considerable flood and wind damage across the panhandle of Florida, into Alabama and Georgia. Many homes and businesses in downtown Pensacola, FL were impacted from flooding produced by storm surge and heavy rainfall. 2020 is now the fourth consecutive year (2017-2020) that the U.S. has been impacted by a slow moving tropical cyclone that produced extreme rainfall and damaging floods – Harvey, Florence, Imelda and Sally. Also, For the first time since 1971, five named storms churned in the Atlantic Basin at one time. Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy and Vicky were each visible in the Atlantic Ocean on September 14.

October 2020

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Tropical systems and wildfires continued into October.

The alternating male/female names for tropical storms gave way to the Greek alphabet, as Hurricanes Delta and Zeta made landfall on October 9 and October 28, respectively, once again targeting the Louisiana Coast. Category 2 Hurricane Delta came ashore on October 9 at Creole, LA, six weeks after Category 4 Laura and approximately 12 miles east of Laura’s landfall location.

Eleven named U.S. storm continental landfalls occurred during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season through November 1. This broke the previous record of nine landfalls in 1916. Through November 1, six hurricanes made landfall in the U.S., which tied 1985 and 1886 for most hurricane landfalls in a single season. Hurricanes Delta and Zeta brought the total number of landfalling named storms for Louisiana in 2020 through November 1 to five (Cristobal, Marco, Laura, Delta and Zeta). This is a new record for Louisiana and any U.S. state.

Wildfires across Colorado grew rapidly during October. As of November 1, the three largest fires on record in Colorado occurred in 2020. More than three dozen large wildfires continued to burn across the West at month’s end. Over 8.5 million acres have burned so far this year, which exceeds the ten-year average. The East Troublesome Fire in Colorado was the state’s second-largest wildfire on record with more than 193,000 acres consumed. In late October, the fire spread rapidly, forcing the evacuation of the entire town of Grand Lake. The 2020 Cameron Peak and Pine Gulch fires were the largest and third-largest fires in state history, respectively.

A little closer to the National Weather Museum & Science Center in Norman, Oklahoma, an ice storm impacted parts of the central and southern Plains on October 27. More than 350,000 residents in central and southwestern Oklahoma were without power as freezing rain and ice brought down foliage-filled trees and, subsequently, powerlines. This was the earliest ice storm on record for Oklahoma.

November 2020

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November marked the “end” of hurricane season for 2020. Through November 30, and the official end of the Atlantic hurricane season, several records were tied or broken. Thirty named storms formed in the Atlantic, which breaks the previous record of 27 set in 2005. The 13 hurricanes and 6 major hurricanes in 2020 are both the second most on record behind 2005 (15 and 7, respectively). Twelve named U.S. storm continental landfalls occurred during 2020. This tops the 11 landfalls set through October 31 and breaks the previous annual record of nine landfalls set in 1916. Six hurricanes made U.S. landfall, tying 1886 and 1985 for the most U.S. hurricane landfalls in a single season.

Nicaragua was impacted by a Category 4 hurricane (Eta) and a Category 5 hurricane (Iota) within two weeks of each other and only a difference in 15 miles for their respective landfalling locations. Iota was the only Category 5 storm during 2020, the strongest hurricane of the season and only the second Category 5 storm on record to form during November.

Phoenix, Arizona is not called The Valley of the Sun for nothing. On November 17, Phoenix reached 92 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking its record for the latest day in the year when the high temperature was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Phoenix, Arizona, broke the record for the number of days with temperatures at or above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in a calendar year. The 2020 record of 53 days shatters the previous record of 33, set in 2011.

December 2020

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We made it. December 2020. The final month of 2020. Hope is in the air with the first phase of doses of the coronavirus vaccine currently being administered. December marks the beginning of meteorological winter (the end of meteorological/northern hemisphere fall). Meteorological winter got off to a quick start with a powerful system that trekked up the east coast, dropping 40-50” of snow in parts of New York, with snowfall rates of 4-6 inches per hour reported!

What will 2021 have in store for us, both in our world and with our weather? As 2020 has demonstrated, it’s nearly impossible for us to say what will happen with any bit of certainty. Whatever lies ahead of us, we hope that all of you stay safe and well. We hope you enjoyed this look back on the weather events of 2020.

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Have an idea for our next episode? Share your ideas and questions for us at info, that’s i-n-f-o at national weather museum dot com, or find us on social media.

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The National Weather Museum and Science Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that operates with the generous support of people like you. Help us continue to preserve the history and highlight the future of weather research by donating or becoming a member today! Find out more at www dot national weather museum dot com.

We’ll see you next time for our latest episode of When Did the Storm Begin, as we bring the history of weather to the forefront.

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PH: Have an idea for our next episode? Share your ideas and questions for us at info, that’s i-n-f-o, at National Weather Museum dot com [info@nationalweathermuseum.com], or find us on social media. The National Weather Museum and Science Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that operates with the generous support of people like you. Help us continue to preserve the history and highlight the future of weather research by donating or becoming a member today. Find out more at www.nationalweathermuseum.com

We’ll see you next time for our latest episode of “When Did the Storm Begin” as we bring the history of weather to the forefront.

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