The United States had severe weather in 2011 with tornadoes, drought and record breaking heat that caused large wildfires. What caused this severe weather.
2011 saw some of the most severe weather that the United States has seen in decades. The severe weather ranged from a Midwest blizzard to some of the deadliest tornadoes in United States history to devastating droughts, heat and wildfires.
Did La Nina Cause the Severe Weather?
Meteorologists blame the strong La Nina of 2010 into 2011 as the cause for this severe weather. This year’s La Nina is believed to be one of the strongest on record. A La Nina year causes the jet stream and weather patterns to shift, usually bringing colder air to the Northern United States and very dry and hot weather to the Southern United States. A strong La Nina can cause more severe tornadoes to occur over the US, and that certainly seems to be what happened in 2011.
La Nina is a cooling of ocean temperatures off the western coast of South America which can change the weather over the United States. For more about La Nina, you can read All About La Nina.
Winter of 2011
The winter of 2011 got off to a nasty start when on February 2, 2011, the Groundhog Day blizzard buried Chicago, Illinois with up to two feet of snow, its third worst snow storm in that city’s history. The storm stranded hundreds of motorists on Lakeshore drive and brought the city to a standstill. The winter storm was mainly focused on the upper Midwest.
Spring 2011 Severe Weather - Tornadoes
As the 2011 season turned to spring, the weather became violent causing severe weather and deadly tornado outbreaks in the United States. In the US during the early spring months, it is still cold in the northern states with cold air continuing to push south. The southern part of the United States is getting much warmer and humid and when these cold and warm humid air masses meet, there can be very severe weather, including tornado outbreaks. 2011 saw some of the worst and deadliest tornado outbreaks in United States history.
Joplin tornado Army Corp of Engineers
April 14-16 Tornado Outbreak
Beginning on April 14th and continuing through April 16th, one of the largest tornado outbreaks occurred. Over these three days, 289 tornadoes were reported in 15 states killing at least 45 people. This severe weather system spawned tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma to the west reaching all the way to the Atlantic coast in the Carolinas. As of April 16th this was the most tornadoes ever reported in a three day period. Unfortunately this tornado outbreak was just the start of what was to become one of the most severe weather and deadliest tornado seasons in United States history.
April 25-28 Tornado Outbreak
Between April 25th and April 28th, an even more severe and deadly tornado outbreak hit the Southern United States with more than 343 tornadoes reported in five states. The worst day of this tornado outbreak occurred on April 27th, when 199 tornadoes caused the deaths of 321 people in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. There were 15 tornadoes that were an EF-4 or EF-5 (Enhanced Fujita scale with 5 being the most severe) during this tornado outbreak.
The 343 tornadoes were the most ever in a single tornado outbreak and the 199 tornadoes in a single day were the most ever recorded in US history.
One of the worst hit areas during this severe weather outbreak occurred in the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama area where 60 people were killed on April 27, 2011. The Tuscaloosa tornado stayed on the ground for 80 miles with numerous other tornadoes on the ground for 50 or more miles. According to the Huntsville, Alabama National Weather Service damage reports, one tornado was so powerful; it actually sucked up a 25 foot piece of pavement. Chunks of this pavement were found in a house a third of a mile away.
April 2011 went down in the record books as the worst tornado month in United States history with 753 tornadoes that killed 364 people.
Tuscaloosa tornado YouTube
An even worse tornado was yet to occur. On May 22, 2011, one of the deadliest tornadoes in United States history struck Joplin, Missouri, destroying a good portion of the city. This one tornado killed 157 and injured over 1,000 people, making it the deadliest single tornado since at least 1950. On May 24th, another severe weather and tornado outbreak in Oklahoma and Kansas killed another 18 people. The Joplin tornado was especially bad because it was rain-wrapped (obscured by rain) and when the sirens went off, people went out to find it and couldn’t see it. By the time they saw debris from the tornado, they had about 10 seconds to get to shelter.
May 2011 was another terrible month with 320 tornadoes that killed 177 people. The final tally for 2011 tornado deaths is at 552 and ties (with 1936) as the second deadliest tornado season in US history with 1625 tornadoes.
Before and after pictures of the Joplin tornado YouTube
Drought, Heat and Wildfires
As the 2011 spring severe weather and tornado season was winding down, heat and drought were becoming a problem in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. As the Southern United States was baking under record temperatures and no rain, cattle and crops were dying. By August 2011, Texas had lost 50% of the cotton crop and 33% of the wheat crop. Here are some amazing temperature records for Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas:
- San Angelo, Texas had one hundred days with a high temperature of 100° F (38° C) and above.
- Abilene, Texas had eighty-one days with 100° F or above.
- Dallas, Texas had 70 consecutive days with highs at or above 100° F.
- Amarillo, Texas had an all-time high temperature of 111° F (43° C) on June 26th and its driest year ever recording only 7”as as December 25.
- The state of Oklahoma was even hotter making 2011 the hottest summer of any state in United States history.
- Fort Smith, Arkansas had an average temperature of 100° F on August 3rd and an all-time record high of 115° F (46° C) on August 3rd with the heat index over 130° F (54° C).
- Fort Smith had 35 straight days of 100° F or above.
- On August 2nd, Tulsa, Oklahoma had an overnight low temperature of 87° F (30° C) and a daily average of 100° F.
With the extreme heat and drought in 2011, wildfires were sure to follow. In Texas alone, 3 million acres burned during 2011. One of the Texas wildfires was called the Bastrop Fire that destroyed 1,600 homes. Arizona also experienced a drought throughout the winter and spring causing a wildfire, called the Wallow Fire that burned 500,000 acres and became Arizona’s worst wildfire in its history. New Mexico also saw a record wildfire that burned 150,000 acres.
Bastrop Fire near Austin, Texas Flickr/Joel
Hurricane Irene in late August was more media hype than severe. The media and government were warning New York City it could be devastated by rain and storm surge, but when Irene made landfall in New York City; it was only a tropical storm. Hurricane Irene did cause a great deal of flooding especially in Vermont.
A freak fall snowstorm hit the Northeast United States in October bringing the most snow fall to New York City for October in history. Record October snow was also seen in parts of New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
2011 Severe Weather Conclusion
2011 was one of the most severe weather seasons in United States history. Most of the damage and deaths occurred from the severe tornado outbreaks. But flooding also contributed to a great deal of damage. Scientists are predicting that another La Nina is starting again, only time will tell if we get more of the same severe weather next year. I know those who live in Tornado Alley of the United States hope we don’t.
Copyright © December 2011 Sam Montana
Storms Predictions Center 2011 Tornado Summaries
NOAA 2011 Tornado Information
Birmingham, Alabama NWS tornado reports
NOAA - Extreme Weather of 2011