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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 12/29/2008

Top Ten Weather Events of 2008: 6-10

By Capital Weather Gang

By Robert Henson

* Full Forecast | Top 5 Weather Events of 2008 *

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, 2008 was the calmest of times and the stormiest of times. In a two-post series, we'll recap some of the highest impact U.S. weather events of the last 12 months. In this post, we describe choices 6-10, and in a subsequent post, we'll unveil the top 5 and give you the chance to vote.

Keep reading for choices 6-10 of the top weather events of 2008...

Politics was center stage this year, and weather played a noteworthy role in the 2008 presidential contest. Most dramatically, the first day of the Republican National Convention was largely abandoned as Hurricane Gustav struck Louisiana on September 1. But this wasn't the only meteorological monkey wrench that landed in John McCain's path. On April 4, McCain delivered a major speech from beneath an umbrella in a rain-drenched Memphis. And McCain's plan to talk up offshore drilling from atop a Gulf of Mexico oil rig was aborted on July 23 by the approach of Hurricane Dolly.

Weather, as it turns out, was one of many factors that aligned in favor of Barack Obama and his campaign. Most of Obama's mammoth outdoor rallies were graced by sunshine. Conditions were nearly perfect--clear skies, light winds, and temperatures close to 70°F--when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination beneath the stars in Denver on August 28. Similarly, Obama's first speech as president-elect took place on November 4 as Chicago's Grant Park basked in unseasonable mildness, with late-evening temperatures still well above the average high for the date of 53°F.

Will Obama's streak of good weather luck continue in D.C. on January 20? Watch for our special coverage of inauguration weather over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, check out choices 6-10 in our top 10 list. Choices 1-5 will appear in a new post to be published in just a couple hours.

6. Southeastern US drought slowly abates (ongoing). The year opened with many parts of the Southeast desperate for rain. Atlanta was at the epicenter of the multi-year drought, with Lake Lanier--the city's chief source of water--having just set a record low on December 26, 2007. There wasn't a single dramatic drought-buster, but recurrent fronts managed to douse enough of the Southeast by April to completely erase the region of "exceptional" drought (the most dire category). Slow improvement continued through the year. Today, only a dimple of "extreme" drought remains from northeast Georgia into southwest North Carolina, while many adjacent areas are now drought-free. However, Lake Lanier remains only a foot above its record low and more than 17 feet below full. [GREAT GRAPHIC: you can generate a comparison from Jan 1 to Dec 23 by going to U.S. Drought Monitor Web site and using the pull-downs.

7. California wildfires (June). The northwest flow that dominated the U.S. in the first half of 2008 left much of California high and dry. Many locales, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, reported their driest springs on record. What shocked many observers wasn't the wildfire itself--in a year like this, it's inevitable--but how quickly it arrived and how intensely it raged. A freakish round of low-precipitation thunderstorms swept across the northern half of the state on June 20-21, triggering more than 2,000 fires. Before summer had even gotten going, huge fires were devastating regions from the Big Sur area through much of the forested north. By late July, though, conditions had eased, and the rest of California's fire season was comparatively tame outside of an intense round of wildfires close to L.A. in November.

8. January tornado outbreak (Midwest, South). Even seasoned weather watchers were astounded to see a tornado outbreak so far northwest so early in the year. When twisters strike in January, it's usually in the Deep South, where moisture is plentiful year round. But on January 7-8, the action was focused in Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. There were even two twisters in southern Wisconsin; only one other had been reported in that state in January since records began in 1844. On January 9 and 10, the tornadoes continued, but most were in the more climatologically favored Deep South--except for a true outlier that struck near Vancouver, Washington, making it that state's first-ever January tornado. All told, the outbreak was the nation's second most prolific for January, but only 4 deaths were recorded.

9. Ohio snowstorm (March). Buffered by the Appalachians and the Great Lakes, Ohio gets many types of weather, but seldom in super-strong doses. March 7-8 was the exception that proved the rule, as much of Ohio was hammered by more than a foot of snowfall. Columbus was buried by 20.8", with 15.4" of that total setting a new 24-hour record. The storm was accompanied by strong winds and biting cold, although temperatures and overall hardship across Ohio fell far short of the memorable Blizzard of 1978, when bitter winds of up to 70 mph piled fresh and existing snow into drifts that paralyzed the state for days.

10. Boy Scout and Kansas State tornadoes (June, Iowa). Hundreds of tornadoes ripped across the nation's heartland in the spring of 2008, but one in particular struck me with its poignancy. More than 100 Boy Scouts and staff encamped on a hilly, wooded site north of Omaha found themselves fighting for their lives on June 11 as an EF-3 twister tossed trees and destroyed a cabin where many campers had taken shelter. More than 40 Scouts were injured, but only 4 died, in part due to the quick action of peers who provided first aid. The incident catalyzed fresh debate on the need for dedicated tornado shelters. Less publicized, but just as impressive, was an EF-4 tornado on the same evening that sliced across the campus of Kansas State University, severely damaging several buildings. Afterward, KSU vice president Tom Rawson delivered what has to be the most ironic weather quote of 2008: "The Wind Erosion Lab is gone." Thankfully, the campus was nearly empty and nobody was seriously hurt.

Meteorologist Robert Henson is a writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He is the author of "The Rough Guide to Weather" (second edition, 2007) and "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" (second edition, 2008).

By Capital Weather Gang  | December 29, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  U.S. Weather  
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