A year of extremes

Roger Meissen, MU Cooperative Media Group

December 29, 2011

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Missouri weather in 2011 was anything but boring.

From floods and drought to tornados and blizzards, the state saw more than a healthy dose of extreme weather events of every variety.

"Missouri saw many extreme weather events from its beginning that continued throughout most of the year," said Pat Guinan, Missouri's state climatologist with the University of Missouri Extension Commercial Agriculture Program. "We deserve some quiet time after what we've experienced this year."

It began with a cold, harsh winter.

Aided by a February blizzard, Columbia, Mo., received 53.4 inches of snow, causing it and many other cities to rank the year among the snowiest on record.

"St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City all had top 10 snowiest winter seasons, with Columbia falling short of its snowiest winter since 1889 by only 1.5 inches," Guinan said. "Between 1-2 feet of snow fell across a large part of the state during February's blizzard. That led some communities to experience their first-ever blizzard warning, caused MU to close for three days and closed Interstate 70 from border to border for the first time because of snow."

As winter thawed, snow turned to rain in Southeast Missouri. Major April flooding resulted at the intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers near Cape Girardeau.

"Heavy snow melt set the stage for floods, and rainfall totals in April showed an exceptionally wet month, especially in Southeastern Missouri where 15-20 inches were reported in some communities," Guinan said. "Thousands of acres flooded, and we saw near-record to record crests established south of Cape Girardeau to New Orleans."

Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff received more than 70 inches of precipitation this year - at least 25 inches above normal. That made 2011 the wettest year ever for Cape Girardeau.

Extreme weather blew into St. Louis with the Good Friday tornado. Hitting Lambert airport in its 21-mile path, the EF-4 tornado was the strongest twister to hit the city in 44 years.

Tornados continued into May, pummeling Joplin in the southwest corner of Missouri. The EF-5 tornado hit the city head-on, leading to 161 fatalities. It was the seventh deadliest U.S. tornado and the deadliest in more than 60 years.

"When all was said and done, it was Missouri's deadliest tornado on record and its costliest natural disaster ever," Guinan said. "It was the second time since 1930 that a Missouri tornado reached an F5 or EF5 designation, with the only other one occurring in Ruskin Heights near Kansas City in 1957."

Midwest and Southeast tornados cost $27.7 billion in a year that saw the most billion dollar weather disasters on record - 12 of them. These 2011 weather and climate calamities surpassed the record of nine disasters set in 2008, according to the National Climatic Data Center, who estimated the final cost of these events at $52 billion.

Major flooding began in May along the Missouri River, hitting northwestern Missouri hard. An unusually wet spring and the melting of deep winter snow in Montana and the Dakotas quickly filled reservoirs. Those reservoirs released record discharge that contributed to major flooding across Iowa, Nebraska, parts of Kansas and Missouri.

"There were major impacts including overtopped levees, breached levees, thousands of acres of farmland under water and flooded communities," Guinan said. "It was a very bad situation that persisted throughout most of the summer."

Northeast Missouri added to the flooding trend in June. Rivers and streams filled to record levels in Lewis and Clark counties, as areas saw more than 15 inches in a month that typically averages four for the region.

Southern Missouri drought starkly contrasted flooding in a case of feast or famine.

Severe Oklahoma and Texas droughts crept into the state as summer progressed, drying up pastures, diminishing yields and hurting herds. Heat and dryness moved north in June and continued unabated into August, logging record temperatures. Guinan said it ranks as the seventh hottest summer on record.

"It was Missouri's hottest July in more than 30 years, and you have to go back to July 1980 to find one that averaged higher temperatures," Guinan said. "Unrelenting, oppressive temperatures led to heat advisories and impacts on human health, crops and livestock."

Dryness continued into early fall. September and October saw drier conditions, especially across northern and west central Missouri.

"A dry October led to conditions that allowed harvesting to run well ahead of normal," Guinan said.

Late fall showed a change, with wetter conditions in November and December across Missouri. The Bootheel averaged more than 18 inches for the two-month period, making it the wettest November-December since 1957.

"These months have been very wet, helping to eliminate drought conditions across northern and western Missouri," Guinan said. "We round out the year with many significant weather events, and we can only hope that next year's weather will be less eventful."

Find Missouri climate information through the Missouri Climate Center at http://climate.missouri.edu.

Source: Pat Guinan, 573-882-5908