Top Ten Weather Events of 2008: 1-5
By Robert Henson
Earlier, we posted choices 6-10 in the top 10 weather events in 2008. Now, we give you the top five. Such lists are always judgment calls, so please weigh in with your own suggestions and vote in our poll at the end of the list.
1. Hurricane Ike (Texas/Louisiana, September). One of the wildest and weirdest hurricanes in recent years, Ike started its career with a bang in the open Atlantic. It intensified from tropical storm to Category 3 status in less than nine hours on 3 September. A few days later, Ike crossed the Caribbean and waltzed across extreme western Cuba as a Cat 3. But Ike's peak winds never regained major-hurricane force. Instead, the system simply got bigger, eventually packing some of the largest radii of hurricane-force winds (125 miles) and tropical-storm force winds (275 miles) ever measured. This posed a major public communication challenge, as the vast swath of wind was expected to stir up a storm surge in the Galveston area far worse than people might presume from the storm's Category 2 rating.
Keep reading for more on Ike and choices 2-5.
The worst of Ike's surge struck less-populated areas just east of Galveston Island on the night of 12-13 September, but the overall damage was still tremendous: more than $30 billion (in inflation-adjusted dollars, that's the third costliest U.S. hurricane on record). Much of Galveston and nearby coastal towns were left in shambles, and storm-surge damage extended well east into Louisiana. Ike resulted in 82 U.S. deaths--among the highest tolls in recent decades--and more than 200 people remain missing in the hurricane's aftermath. The Boston Globe posted an incredible Ike photo gallery.
2. Midwest rains and flooding (Iowa and surrounding states, June). Although El Niño often gets the rap for U.S. flooding, it was a relentless storm track powered by La Niña that focused heavy winter snows and spring rains across a belt roughly from Kansas to Michigan. It all culminated with two weeks of incredible rains centered in two bands, one from central Iowa to southern Wisconsin and another running from eastern Illinois to southern Indiana. Some spots notched more than 14" between June 1 and 15, and a total of 15 stations had their wettest single days on record, gauging anywhere from 4.5" to 9.5" of rain. The resulting floods managed to topple a few of the marks set in the epic 1993 Mississippi flood. The most jaw-dropping imagery came from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where floodwaters spread to an almost-incomprehensible extent. More than 42,000 people were evacuated and some 400 city blocks were inundated as the Cedar River rose nearly twelve feet above its previous record crest.
3. Hurricane Gustav (Louisiana, September). It threatened to pummel New Orleans with the same or greater ferocity than Katrina did in 2005, but in the end, Gustav--as with many sequels--failed to deliver the punch of the original. Except for a sharp southwest jog in the northern Caribbean, Gustav followed a remarkably straight northwesterly path toward the Louisiana coast. Fears of a Katrina repeat were stoked when Gustav quickly reached Category 4 strength while approaching western Cuba, and people left the Louisiana coastline in droves--the state's largest evacuation in history. But the hurricane never quite recovered from its brief passage over Cuba, and it plowed into the coast at borderline Cat. 2/3 strength near Grand Isle, just far enough west to stave off another New Orleans disaster. Nevertheless, Gustav left an impressive swath of damage well inland, with countless trees and power lines knocked down across Louisiana. In all, 43 U.S. deaths were recorded, along with nearly 100 others in the Caribbean.
4. Super Tuesday tornado outbreak (Midwest and South, February). As if there weren't enough drama in the air as political primaries unfolded nationwide on February 5, nature threw a few tornadoes into the mix--87, to be exact, causing some precincts to close early. The parent storms were sparked by a potent upper-level trough, but perhaps the most unusual ingredient was a large swath of moist, record-warm surface air that swept into place more than a day ahead of time. (More typically in a midwinter outbreak, such air masses race north only hours before storms develop.) Some of the worst damage was near Nashville and Memphis and in star-crossed Jackson, Tennessee, which endured its third major tornado strike following hits in 1999 and 2003. If nothing else, the onslaught is beefing up the city's tornado awareness. Students at Union University dove for cover as dormitories were heavily damaged, but nobody died on campus. All told, though, the tornadoes took 57 lives, making this the deadliest U.S. outbreak since 1985.
5. Winter onslaught across northern tier (Northwest/Midwest/Northeast, December). An unusually potent jet stream brought multiple waves of wintry weather across the northern half of the nation from mid-December toward month's end. The sustained cold was noticeable, if only because recent years have brought so little of it, but frozen precipitation was the real star of this show. The Portland, Oregon, area saw its heaviest snow in 29 years (11-13"), and several Wisconsin cities had their snowiest Decembers on record, less than a year after the state set many seasonal snowfall records. The worst ice storm in New Hampshire's history left thousands of customers without power for days just before the holidays, and hundreds were stranded at snow-crippled airports from Seattle to Chicago.
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).
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