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Weather extremes may be the new norm

A record-setting winter in much of the country has been followed by more records: tornadoes, flooding, drought and heat. Climate change is largely to blame, scientists say.

August 24, 2011|Julie Cart and Hailey Branson-Potts

LOS ANGELES AND MARSHALL, OKLA. — Oklahomans are accustomed to cruel climate. Frigid winters and searing summers are often made more unbearable by scouring winds. But even by Oklahoma standards, it's been a year of whipsaw weather.

February was so cold -- with the wind chill it felt like 16 below -- that Tim Gillard installed a door in the long hallway of his home in the small farming town of Marshall, walling off three rooms to more affordably heat the rest of the house. Now, in this summer's unrelenting heat, his family huddles in the air conditioning behind that same door.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 25, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Weather extremes: An article about extreme weather in the Aug. 24 Section A said the 50 tornadoes that struck Oklahoma in April set a record for the most tornadoes to hit the state in one month. That was the most tornadoes Oklahoma has experienced in the month of April. The record number of tornadoes to hit Oklahoma in any month was 90, in both May 1999 and May 2010.

The Gillards' respite ended this month when a windstorm knocked out the town's electricity. That sent many of Marshall's 290 beleaguered residents out to their porches at night to sleep, cooler than inside but still sweltering. In July, Oklahoma's average statewide temperature of 89 was the highest ever recorded for any state.

Oklahoma's misery has been writ large across the country this year, which federal climate scientists have labeled one of the worst in American history for extreme weather. With punishing blizzards, epic flooding, devastating drought and a heat wave that has broiled a huge swath of the country, the 2011 weather has been unrelenting and extraordinary.

In addition to hundreds of deaths from cold and heat and tornadoes, the national economic toll for extreme weather so far this year is estimated at $35 billion, more than five times the average annual loss.

And, climatologists warn, get used to it.

The year has been so wild that Gary McManus has given up keeping track of the weather records set in Oklahoma. Begrudgingly, McManus, the associate state climatologist, briskly rattled off a few:

* The all-time low temperature (31 degrees below zero).

* Greatest 24-hour snowfall total (27 inches).

* Most tornadoes in one month (50 in April).

There's been no measurable rain in the western half of the state since October. The 11-month period ending in August was the driest such period statewide since records were first kept in 1895.

McManus said this year's back-to-back weather calamities were "out of the realm of your imagining. It's not just that temperatures are above normal, it's that it's above normal for so many months in a row." And this is the state that bore the brunt of the Dust Bowl.

"It's Oklahoma, it's feast or famine," said Annette Gonzales, 58, acting Marshall postmaster. "It's always extreme."

Oklahoma's heat wave has so far claimed 14 lives. Since 2000, Oklahoma has had more federally declared weather-related disasters than any other state.

The weather's apparent caprice puzzled many as it played across the continent: Farmers in Texas and Oklahoma unable to plant during the worst drought on record watched as farmers along the Mississippi River lost their fields to floodwater. Much of the nation suffered through stifling heat while the West Coast enjoyed a notably mild summer.

Climate scientists point to the predictable and cumulative effects of climate change -- both hot and cold -- to account for much of the extreme weather, although the connection between tornadoes and climate is not clear. In any event, scientists caution that the future will hold greater temperature extremes, and for longer duration.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say that extreme weather events have been more frequent since 1980.

"I think it would be a mistake to not think that this has become the new normal," McManus said. "Until it stops happening, we should expect it to continue."

The winter brought ice storms and snow from Mexico to Canada. The "Groundhog Day blizzard," which began in late January, brought Chicago to a standstill, dumped 21 inches of snow at O'Hare International Airport and killed 36 people.

But the spring and summer have packed a wallop of willful and dangerous weather. April spawned 875 tornado reports -- the 30-year average for the month is 135. The "super outbreak," as climatologists dubbed it, killed 327 people.

Floodwaters sprang from the Red River to the Ohio River. A string of enormous storms saturated the Ohio Valley, where precipitation was more than 200% above normal.

The Mississippi River crested from Illinois to Louisiana. As the Mississippi continued to rise, threatening major cities along its banks, a district judge ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to open the Morganza Spillway, inundating 4,600 square miles of Louisiana bottom land along with rural farmsteads and fields.

At times one weather crisis begot another. The storm cells parked above the Ohio Valley blocked the much-needed moisture from the Gulf of Mexico from reaching the southern Plains, exacerbating the region's drought.

Heat and aridity smothered Texas, where 2 million acres were consumed by wildfires in late spring. Another record.

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