Weather Extremes

California's Superstorm: The USGS ARkstorm Report and the Great Flood of 1862

By: weatherhistorian, 8:54 PM GMT on January 26, 2011

California’s ‘Superstorm’

On January 14th the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report prepared by its Multi Hazards Demonstration Project (MHDP) concerning a potential ‘super storm’ that could impact California at some future date and cause the costliest weather-related disaster in American history. The report references the most extreme rainfall event in modern Californian history (the floods of January 1862) as a warning of what might occur again.

The USGS Report

The report (see: is titled the “ARkStorm Scenario” with “ARk” standing for ‘Atmospheric River 1,000’. It is not clear what the ‘1,000’ represents (aside from k=1,000) but the ‘Atmospheric River’ refers to the long fetch of sub-tropical moisture that sometimes stretches across the Pacific Ocean and takes aim at the California Coast. This event is also known as the “pineapple express” since it often originates from the Hawaiian Islands region.

Two examples of ‘atmospheric rives’ of water vapor impacting California. The first chart is from February 16, 2004 and illustrates a ‘pineapple express’ scenario. The second chart is from October 13, 2009 when moisture from a dissipating typhoon in the western Pacific was entrained into the atmosphere and carried all the way across the Pacific Ocean to California. Up to 20” of rain in 24 hours deluged the Central California coast during this event.

On occasions, as it presumably did during December 1861-January 1862, this stream of moisture becomes a persistent feature lasting for days and even weeks and funneling storm after storm towards the West Coast of the United States. The abbreviation of “ARk” is obviously a play on the biblical story of Noah and his Ark and the mythical 40 days and 40 nights of rain.

The USGS suggests that up to 120” of rain might fall in California over the course of such an event (in favored orographic locations) the run-off from which would flood the entire Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys as well as the basins of Southern California. A very detailed analysis from the report predicts damage to exceed $300 billion with up to 225,000 people permanently displaced (in terms of complete destruction of dwellings) and a further 1.2 million forced into evacuation.

Casualties aren’t predicted since, and as we’ve seen in Australia recently, they probably would not be significant given the long and slow unfolding aspect of such an event, unlike, as say from an earthquake. But the report’s #1 key finding is titled: “Megastorms are California’s other ‘big one’”.

A map of California from the USGS ARkstorm report showing (in blue) the regions of the state that would flood. In fact, the map very closely resembles the areas that actually DID flood during December 1861 and January 1862.


From an historical vantage point, USGS sediment research in the San Francisco Bay Area and also near Santa Barbara indicate that ‘ARkstorm-like’ floods have occurred in the past in the following years A.D.: 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, 1605, and then during the modern era in December 1861-January 1862. So we see a pattern of reoccurrence once every 165-400 years.

Thus, in theory a repeat may occur as soon as 15 years from now or as late as 250 years in the future. Like major earthquakes, it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Fortunately, unlike earthquakes, an ARkstorm-series can be fairly accurately predicted (at least a week or more in advance) so life- and property-saving precautions could be undertaken. Even longer term forecasting may also be applicable since such a scenario is most likely to occur during a strong El Nino phase (although this certainly proved not to be the case this past December or, as it seems in 1861-1862!).

However plausible the ARkstorm scenario may be, however, it is obviously a ‘worst-case scenario sort of disaster’ and so planning for and undertaking costly preventative measures may not be cost effective. We know, for instance, that Manhattan could be swamped by a 15-20-foot storm surge should a major hurricane sideswipe the city, yet few would recommend building a 15-foot seawall around the southern perimeter of the island in anticipation of such a possibility (although there are suggestions to create some kind of barriers at certain ‘choke points’).

In any case, below is what we do know about the one time an event of ‘ARkstorm’ strength actually did swamp California.


In 1860 the population of California was 380,000 according to the official U.S. census (this figure may not have included Chinese immigrants). There are 38 million residents in the state now. In 1861 there was no formal weather service in existence, just a handful of individuals who kept data in such places as San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, and Los Angeles (a small village at that time). San Francisco was far and away the largest city in the state accounting for about 50,000 of the 380,000 state residents.

The first rain of the 1861-1862 season occurred on November 10th according to San Francisco records. By the end of November 4.10” of rain had fallen, well above the average of 3.20”. The first half of December brought an additional 3.27” and then the rains began in earnest on December 23. Between then and January 22 an amazing 29.28” of rain was recorded in the city. An additional 1.35” fell the last of week of January (the calendar month of January total being 24.36” and the Dec.-Jan. total being 33.90”) and February produced another 7.53”. San Francisco’s normal annual rainfall is 22.28”. Sacramento recorded 23.68” during the two-month period of December-January (annual average is 19.87”). In San Diego 8.76” was recorded (annual average 10.77”) and estimates of 35” accumulated in the Los Angeles area (annual average 15.14”). In the Sierra Nevada foothills truly extraordinary amounts of precipitation were reported including 102” in the mining town of Sonora over the two-month period. Flooding that had begun during the December deluges increased in scope and intensity throughout January. The capital city of Sacramento was flooded by ten feet of water and the new governor had to travel to his inauguration in a rowboat.

A photograph of downtown Sacramento at the height of the flood in January 1862. Photo from the Bancroft Library collection, Univ. of California, Berkeley.

It is unclear how many lives were lost. The New York Times reported rumors from San Francisco’s Chinatown suggesting 1000 Chinese miners and laborers perished in the vicinity of Yuba when their makeshift town on a bar of the Yuba River was washed away.

One strange meteorological aspect of the event was the wild swings of temperature that occurred during both December and January. Although the only actual temperature record we have was from a resident of San Francisco (Mr. Thomas Tennent), we know from the constant accumulation and subsequent melting of the Sierra snowpack that some of the storms were very warm and some very cold; snow melt reported as high as 8000-feet in the mountains and yet snowfall reported near sea level in the Sacramento Valley floor itself over the course of the storm period. ¾” of snow was actually reported in Sacramento itself on January 29th. Mr. Tennent, in San Francisco, recorded nine days with below freezing temperatures in January alone, including a 22° reading on January 28, a full 5° colder than any temperature ever measured in the modern era of the city.
Massive runoff from the mountains during the warm storms filled the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys almost from the foothills of the Sierra on the east to the hills on the west side of the Great Valley. A giant lake 250-300 miles long and 20 miles wide apparently formed, some 5,000-6,000 square miles (of what is now some of the most valuable agricultural land in the world and home to about 2 million people).

Curiously, the event may not have happened during an El Nino year according to research done at Oregon State University by climatologists Victor Neal and William Quin. Their analysis indicates a polar jet that swept down to central California in December and then fluctuated north and south over the Northwest and California for two months interacting with a persistent Alaskan low that bowled one storm after another into California. However, one must assume, given the prodigious rainfall amounts, that a subtropical stream of moisture must have been entrained into this system. It is unfortunate that we don’t have any temperature records from California to confirm this aside from Mr. Tennet’s records of the minimums from San Francisco.

REFERENCE: For the best detailed account of the California 1861-1862 flood event see the article in Weatherwise magazine by Jan Null and Joelle Hulbert, volume 60 no. 1, January-February, 2007.


The Coldest Places on Earth

By: weatherhistorian, 9:05 PM GMT on January 19, 2011

The Coldest Places on Earth

Being mid-January I thought it timely to present a survey of the world’s coldest places and temperatures measured thereat. Although not as contentious as extreme heat records, cold records have their issues as well. Should uninhabited places be part of the record? What about measurements reported from sinkholes (also known as dolines), or on mountaintops or during scientific expeditions? Below is a brief summary of some of the coldest places on earth and the temperatures measured there.


There is no debating that the highland interior of Antarctica is the coldest region on earth. Only a handful of research stations exist in this hostile environment and the Russian station at Vostok is the coldest of all.

Vostok Station is the most isolated scientific research site in the world located at an elevation of 11,444’ (3,488m) near the South Geomagnetic Pole (about 700 miles from the South Pole itself).

Weather records have been maintained here almost consistently since it was first established by the Soviets in 1958. It is manned by 25 researchers during the summer months and 13 during the winter. The world’s lowest observed surface air temperature was recorded on July 21, 1983 when a reading of -128.6°F (-89.2°C) was made. Another even colder reading of -132°F (-91°C) was rumored to have been attained during the winter of 1997 but this is unsubstantiated. The single coldest month was August 1987 with a mean temperature of -104°F (-75.4°C). The warmest on record for the site is a surprising 10°F above zero (-12.2°C) on January 11, 2002. Below is the climate chart for Vostok:


What the coldest temperature measured outside of Antarctica might be is debatable. An automated remote weather station on the Greenland’s ice cap apparently recorded -92.9°F (-69.4°C) on December 22, 1991 at Klinck site during a research project by the Space and Engineering Center of the University of Wisconsin, Madison between 1987-1992. The site was located at 10,187’ (3105m) at 72°18N, 40°28W and manually checked on an annual basis. The lowest observed temperature in Greenland was an -87°F (-66.1°C) reading made at Northice (a British research station in existence for just two years) on January 1, 1954. This site was located at an altitude of 7680’ (2341m) and 78°04’N, 38°29’W. Given the very short periods of record for both of the above sites it is reasonable to assume temperatures lower than -70°C (-94°F) have most likely occurred at some place and at some time or other on the higher elevations of the Greenland ice cap. Therefore, I would argue that this region is the 2nd coldest place on the planet.


The coldest permanently inhabited region of the world is unarguably the so-called ‘Pole of Cold’ in northeastern Siberia, centered around the towns of Oymyakon (many spellings) and Verkoyansk. For the record, Oymyakon has barely edged out Verkoyansk with a reading of -89.9°F (-67.7°C) on February 6, 1933 versus Verkoyansk’s -89.7°F (-67.6°C) on February 5 and 7, 1892. There has been quite a bit of confusion and misinformation surrounding these figures as colder readings from both sites have been claimed. Part of the confusion is from publication’s rounding off the figures to -68C° (-90.4°F), which is wrong, or relying on out-of-date and already discredited lower figures made by errors in past publications. For a very good complete analysis of this debate (and confirmation of the correct figures listed above) see On the Lowest Temperatures on Earth by Nina A. Stepanova, Monthly Weather Review pp. 6-10, January 1958.

Geoff Mackley throws a cup of boiling water into the air at Oymyakon on February 1, 2004 while the temperature stood at -53°F (-47°C). The water converted to ice crystals before reaching the ground. Photo by Mark Whetu.

So far this winter Oymyakon has bottomed out at -78° twice (most recently on January 6) and Verkoyansk at -69° on December 23 and 24.

Other Russian localities that have, at least anecdotally (I can not find dates or confirmation), reported temperatures of -80°F (-62.2°C) or lower include:

NORTH AMERICA (excluding Greenland)

As a result of many years of extensive scientific research at a plethora of locations in Alaska and the Canadian North, there have been several reports of temperatures that even exceed those minimums from Greenland. As most of you know, the official coldest readings for Canada and Alaska (and thus the U.S.A.) are -81°F (-62.8°C) at Snag, Yukon on February 3, 1947 and -79.8°F (-62.1°C) at Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska on January 23, 1971. A quick note about the Snag reading: this was an extrapolated figure since the thermometer only registered down to -80°F. The actual extrapolation was to -84°F but when the thermometer was calibrated it was found to be registering 3°F too cold, hence the final ‘official’ reading of -81°F was determined.

A map of the coldest temperatures (F°) recorded in Yukon Province and surrounding areas during the February 1947 cold spell. Image courtesy of The Weather Doctor Almanac, Vancouver, Canada and originally reproduced in Weatherwise magazine.

Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska is no longer inhabited (it was a station along the Alaska Pipeline off the James Dalton Highway) and little is known about the history of the -79.8°F reading. On the same day the hamlet of Coldfoot (40 miles north of Prospect Creek Camp) a storefront thermometer reported a reading of -82°F (-63.3°C) which has not been accepted as official (the official reading was just -74°F). The coldest ‘official’ temperature measured in Alaska at an inhabited site was the -78° (-61.1°C) at Fort Yukon on January 14, 1934.

Some other much colder unofficial temperatures have been measured in Canada and Alaska. The most extreme is a -100°F (-73.3•C) apparently recorded by a thermometer that was left at a location about 15,000’ (4,572m) high on the slopes of Mount McKinley by the U.S. Army Natick Laboratory for a period of 19 years ending in 1969. It is not known, of course, just when this temperature may have occurred.
More recently, a scientific study undertaken by the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Alberta (see the journal Arctic vol.35, no.4, pp. 537-541, December 1982) concerning the effects of cold air drainage on temperatures in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies measured -95.8°F (-71°C) and -92.2°F (-69°C) at two study plots near Fort Nelson, British Columbia on the night of January 6-7, 1982. The airport at Fort Nelson recorded just -43.6°F (-42.0°C) that night.

A chart and caption concerning the remarkable temperatures measured during the scientific study related above.

In the contiguous United States, a similar on-going study in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah has so far resulted in measureing an absolute minimum temperature of -69.3°F (-56.3°C) at Peter Sinks on February 1, 1985 (considered the official state record for Utah) and only .4°F warmer than the official coldest reading for the lower 48 states of -69.7° (-56.5°C) registered at Rogers Pass, Montana on January 20, 1954. Another site near Peter Sinks in Utah, Middle Sinks, recorded -62°F (-52.2°C) that same night. These sinks have measured the following monthly extremes (compared to the official monthly extremes recorded at other contiguous U.S. sites):

We see a problem here where the -69.3°F at Peter Sinks has been accepted as ‘official’ but not the other readings which are apparently record-breakers for the months of March, May, and September.

The coldest temperature at an inhabited site in the lower 48 (Rogers Pass consists of just a cabin or two, and the sinks in Utah use RAWS thermometers) is the -66°F (-54.4°C) recorded on February 9, 1933 at West Yellowstone, Montana. Confusion surrounds the actual location of the site that recorded this reading since in 1933 the town of West Yellowstone did not exist and the -66°F was reported by the Riverside Ranger Station that was located where the town of West Yellowstone eventually came to life (now the principle ‘gateway’ town the Park). The USWB Climatological Data by Sections, February 1933 had lumped this location into its Wyoming data section under ‘Yellowstone’ even though it was, in fact, located in Montana not Wyoming. A portion of Yellowstone N.P. is also in Idaho. The Riverside Ranger Station no longer exists but the current location of the weather station in West Yellowstone is located at the same site as the ranger station (and so you can see an error on my map below where I differentiated between the two!).


The coldest region of Europe is, of course, that portion of European Russia west of the Ural Mountains. The village of Ust’-Shchugor holds the record for Europe with a -72.6°F (-58.1°C) reading on December 31, 1978. Also in this region is Pechora that has been as cold as -68.8°F (-56°C) measured on February 9, 1946.

In Western Europe Sweden has reported the absolute coldest minimums although there is some controversy as too what the actual country record is. According to the Swedish meteorological organization the official low is -63.4° (-53°C) recorded on a private thermometer in Malgovik, Vasterbotten County on December 13, 1941 and certified as reliable by the national met service at that time. A colder unofficial reading of -65.2°F (-54°C) was also recorded in the courtyard of the church in Karesuando. The coldest reading made by an official thermometer in Sweden (and thus Western Europe is -62.7° (-52.6°C) at Vuoggatjalme, Norboten County on February 2, 1966.

Extremely cold temperatures have, like in the U.S.A., been recorded in sinkholes (also called ‘dolines’) in various other Western European countries. In Germany a -50.6°F (-45.9°C) was reported in a doline at Funtensee Oberbayem, Upper Bavaria on December 24, 2001. Not to be outdone by Germany, Austria has recorded -63.6°F (-52.6°C) in a doline at Grunloch sometime in February or March 1932. This is just shy of the -62.5°F (-52.5°C) recorded in a sinkhole at Glattalp, Schwyz Canton, in Switzerland on February 7, 1991. Just recently last December 27th, -54.9°F (-48.3°C) was measured in a sinkhole in the Italian Alps.

Although all these temperature measurements from sinkholes/dolines are almost surely accurate it is debatable how to fit them in with the official records made in inhabited places.


The coldest temperatures measured in South America (and thus in the Southern Hemisphere (outside of the Antarctic region) is apparently a reading of -40°F (-40°C) recorded at Puesto Viejo, Chile on June 21, 2002. Although this figure has not yet been officially accepted by the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) it appears to be reliable according to Chilean meteorological authorities. The WMO official record for South America is a -27°F (-32.8°C) at Sarmiento, Argentina on June 1, 1907. However, colder readings from Argentina have been reported by the Servicio Meteorologico Nacional (of Argentina) including an absolute minimum of -38.2°F (-39°C) in the Valle de Los Patos Superior, a cold high mountain valley in the Andes near the Chilean border. This is an uninhabited site and it seems the measurement was made during some kind of mountain expedition. The lowest reading from an inhabited site is reported to be -31.5°F (-35.3°C) at Maquinchao, Rio Negro Province on July 17, 1991. This reading, however, is no more reliable than the Sarmiento reading and should be viewed with suspicion. The lowest undisputed temperature from a town in Argentina is -14.3°F (-25.7°C) at Perito Moreno in July 2000.


Africa’s official minimum temperature is -11°F (-23.9°C) at Ifrane, Morocco on February 11, 1935. This is even a colder reading than has ever been reported from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro (anecdotal reports indicating readings as low as -8°F/-22°C having apparently been measured there).


The records for Australia and New Zealand (undisputed!) are respectively: -9.4°F (-23°C) at Charlotte Pass, New South Wales, Australia on June 29, 1994 and -6.9°F (-21.6°C) at Ophir, Otago Province, New Zealand on July 3, 1995.


Should temperature readings made in sinkholes/dolines, or uninhabited mountain regions be considered ‘official’? If not, how should they be accounted for in the public record?

Should temperatures recorded in sites like this sinkhole in Peter Sinks, Utah, which recorded -69.3°F in February 1985, be considered ‘official’? Photo thanks to Tim Wright and Zane Stephens.

KUDOS: Thanks to Maximiliano Herrera, Trent McCotter, and Tim Wright and Zane Stephens (for the Utah sinks data).


Snowstorms in the South: An Historical Perspective

By: weatherhistorian, 7:37 AM GMT on January 12, 2011

Snowstorms in the Southeast and Deep South of the United States: An Historical Perspective

Atlanta, Georgia was amazed recently when 4-6” of snow (and ice) accumulated this past Sunday and Monday. Furthermore, snow fell on Christmas Day (officially 1.4”) in the Atlanta area as well. So how unusual is this? Of course, it is unusual but not close to record-breaking snowfall anywhere in the Southeast. Huntsville, Alabama recorded 8.9” and this was their 3rd heaviest accumulation on record but still a long way from the all-time record of 17.1” set on New Years Eve 1963-1964. Atlanta’s official 4.4” accumulation is also distant from their record of 11.2” set on January 7, 1940.

The Greatest Southeastern Snowstorms on Record

The following is a summary of the all-time greatest snowstorms to have been observed in the Gulf and Deep South Region.

JANUARY 9-11, 1800: Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina

The single greatest snow accumulations ever reported from Florida to coastal Georgia and coastal South Carolina occurred on January 9-11 some 211 years ago in 1800. A survey party demarcating the border between Florida and Georgia was encamped at the mouth of St. Mary’s River near where Ft. Clinch State Park is now just north of the current site of Jacksonville, Florida. They reported heavy snow most of the day and night of January 10th and awoke to 5” of snow cover. More may have actually fallen and melted prior to sunrise on the 11th when they made their observation. In and around Savannah, Georgia 18” of snow fell with drifts up to 3-feet. Here the snow fell continuously for a 36-hour period from late evening January 9th until early morning January 11th. In Charleston, South Carolina, the State Gazette reported 8” of snow on level with severe drifting and gales. It would appear that Charleston was on the northern edge of the heaviest accumulations which were centered around Savannah. (For more about this event see Early American Winters: 1604-1820 pp. 159-160, by David M. Ludlum, American Meteorological Society, Boston, 1966).

In modern records the heaviest snowfalls have been the following for these locations: Jacksonville, Florida: 1.9” (February 12-13, 1899), Savannah, Georgia: 3.6” December 8, 1989; Charleston, South Carolina: 7.1” February 9-10, 1973.

DECEMBER 3-6, 1886: Southern Appalachians

An early season heavy wet snowstorm hammered all of Alabama and the higher elevations of Georgia and North Carolina December 3-6, 1886 with 12-16” of snowfall in central Alabama (Montgomery had a record 11.0”), 17-20” in the northern parts of Alabama, and up to 25” in northern Georgia (as was measured in Rome). But it was in the mountains of North Carolina that the most extraordinary accumulations were reported with 36-42” at places like Hot House, North Carolina and Ducktown, Tennessee. Asheville, North Carolina reported 33” of snow on level, almost double the amount from the famous ‘Superstorm’ of 1993.

FEBRUARY 14-16, 1895: Coastal Texas to Alabama

A coastal low in the Gulf of Mexico developed near Texas on February 14, 1895 and spread a mantle of deep snow from the coastal areas of northern Mexico to Florida over the following two days. Snowflakes were reported in Tampico, Mexico (the furthest south snow has ever been recorded at a coastal location in the Western Hemisphere: 22°18’N). Brownsville, Texas measured 3-6” and the accumulations became even more fantastic further up the coast: Galveston had 15.4”, Houston 20.0”, and Lake Charles, Louisiana 22.0”. A peak accumulation of 24” was measured at Rayne in southeast Louisiana, a state record. These amounts were actually ground depth measurements, so more may have actually fallen. New Orleans registered its greatest snowfall on record with an 8.2” as did Pensacola, Florida with 3.0”. A state record for Mississippi was set at Batesville with 20.0”.

New Orleans experienced its only true blizzard on February 12, 1899. Although only 3.8” of snow fell (compared to the 8.2” in 1895) the temperature fell from the mid-20°s to low teens during the snowfall (with strong winds) and then down to an all-time low of 6.8°F by the morning of February 13th. (photo from Historic New Orleans Collection).

DECEMBER 31, 1963-JANUARY 1, 1964: Mississippi and Alabama

Another record-breaking snow of note includes this event that still holds the following all-time snowfall records: Huntsville, Alabama 17.1”; Florence, Alabama 19.2”; Meridian, Mississippi 15.0”.

FEBRUARY 9-10, 1973: Piedmont of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina

No snowstorm in the old or modern records can match that that struck the Piedmont regions of Georgia and South Carolina in February 1973. Macon, Georgia received 16.5” of snowfall and Augusta and Columbus both reported 14.0” (all-time records). Even Albany received its all-time accumulation of 3.0”. In South Carolina an all-time state record was achieved at Rimini with 24” and Columbia (16”) and Florence (17”) also set their respective all-time records for both a single snowstorm and a 24-hour accumulation.

This graphic shows the track of the surface low (solid line) and track of the 850mb low (dashed line) along with snow accumulation amounts during the storm of February 9-10, 1973. Peak snowfall was in central South Carolina with 24” at Rimini. (graphic from Weatherwise Magazine Vol. 27 p. 193, October, 1974).

MARCH 12-14, 1993: All of the interior Southeast

No summary of southern snowfall records would be complete without mention of the so-called ‘Superstorm’ or ‘Storm of the Century’. Among the notable all-time snowfall records achieved during this event are the state records for 24-hour snowfall in Georgia, 24.0” at Mountain City (modern record, see 1886); as well as Tennessee: 30.0” on Mt. LeConte, and also North Carolina: 36.0” on Mt. Mitchell. Mt. LeConte also reported an amazing Tennessee state record for a single-greatest storm total with 60.0” over the course of three days March 12-14. For the lower elevations all-time snowfall records were set at Birmingham, Alabama: 13.0” and Asheville, North Carolina: 16.5” (only a modern record, see storm of 1886 above).

A Special Note About Snow in Florida

Aside from the snow event of 1800 readers might be curious as to what the modern snowfall records are for Florida. The greatest ‘statewide’ snowfall occurred during the famous East Coast blizzard and cold wave of February 1899 (the same event that brought sub-zero temperatures to Florida for the first and only time). On February 13th, 1899 snow flakes were observed as far south as Fort Meyers and a general 1”+ accumulation occurred statewide north of Gainesville. Jacksonville recorded its greatest modern accumulation of 1.9”, 2.1” was measured at Pensacola, and up to 6” was anecdotally reported near the Georgia border in northwest Florida. The highest official amount was 3.5” at Haywood.

The furthest south snow flakes have been reported is at Homestead (south of Miami 25° 18’ N) on January 19, 1977. The deepest snowfall officially measured in the state is 4.0” at Milton Experimental Station in the NW corner on March 6, 1954.

Winter Weather Snow

December 2010 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By: weatherhistorian, 9:25 PM GMT on January 06, 2011

December 2010 Global Weather Extremes Summary
December 2010 will go down in the record books for a number of extreme weather events from around the world with perhaps the Western European cold wave and snow topping the list. The following is a summary of some of the extreme weather highlights from around the world for the past month.

Big snowstorms and rainstorms were the most notable events for the United States and Canada punctuated at the end of the month by one of the most severe tornado outbreaks in December history in the south-central portion of the United States.

Incredible lake effect snowstorms hammered upstate New York and southern Ontario during the first half of the month (see my previous blog for details about these events). By the end of the month Syracuse had wracked up 72.8” of snowfall, its greatest December accumulation and 2nd greatest single-month amount (snowiest month was January 2004 with 78.1”). On December 10-11th one of the deepest snows in Minneapolis history buried the city under 17.4” (19.0” in St, Paul). Eau Claire, Wisconsin registered its single greatest snowstorm on record (for any month) with a 22.0” accumulation (old record 18.5” on February 22-25, 1929). Then came the incredible (and incredibly mis-forecast!) Boxing Day blizzard of Dec. 26-27 in the mid-Atlantic states with the worst of the storm hammering New York City and New Jersey where 20-24” and up to 32” (Rahway) fell respectively. Atlantic City, New Jersey recorded 20.0” in 24 hours its heaviest such snowstorm on record and wind gusts up to 64mph resulted in true blizzard conditions. Newark, New Jersey’s 24.2” ranked as its 2nd greatest snow on record. Amazingly, the computer models dropped the ball on this one and significant snow was not forecast to occur until 36 hours before the first flakes began to fall.

An amazing time-lapse video made by Michael Black records 32” of snowfall at Belmar, New Jersey.

Meanwhile out West waves of Pacific storms drenched California under record rainfall with stupendous snows in the Sierra Nevada. Floods and mudslides ruined the Christmas Holidays for some in the southern portions of the state. Bakersfield, California recorded its single wettest month on record (any month) with a 5.82” total (old record 5.36” in February 1998). To put this in perspective Bakersfield normally receives a seasonal total (July 1-June 30) of just 6.49”. Bishop, California was drenched with 4.93” of rain between December 18-20, equivalent to what it normally receives in an entire year!

Flooding and mudslides in the Los Angeles region. (photo from

Los Angeles recorded 10.23”, one of its wettest Decembers on record and 51” of snow fell in 24 hours at Mammoth Ski Resort in the Sierra. What is exceptional about the rains in Southern California (aside from the quantities) is that they have occurred during a moderate-strong La Nina which historically brings unusually dry weather to Southern California.

Over 150” of snowfall was reported at Mammoth Ski Area in the central Sierra Nevada December 15-20. (photo courtesy of Mammoth Ski Resort)

The greatest temperature anomalies occurred in the Deep South and Florida. Key West, Florida reported its 2nd coldest single month on record with an average of 63.1° (its record is 61.3° in January 1981). An amazing feat for a December! Most locations in central and southern Florida recorded their coldest December of record.

Colon, Cuba recorded an all-time record low temperature of 1.9°C (35.4°F) on December 15th, only a few degrees above the all-time national record of 0.6°C (33.1°F) set at Bainoa in February, 1996.

In Canada wunderground reader 'wobsobs' made the following observation:

A retrogressing low from the Atlantic brought some record breaking mild temperatures over the eastern Canadian Arctic over the weekend. Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet in Nunavut both hit all time December highs on Saturday Dec 18th. Both communities rose above the freezing mark for the first time on record in December. Baker Lake hit +1.1C on the 18th, eclipsing the previous monthly high of -1.1C on Dec 25 1999 (records go back to 1946). Rankin Inlet hit +0.9C, eclipsing the previous December high of -2.0C on Dec 17 2002 (records go back to 1981).

A massive tornado outbreak on December 30-31 struck Arkansas and Missouri. Six EF-3 twisters killed eight and the total count of 25 tornadoes made this one of the top tornado outbreaks of the entire year.

During the first two weeks of December floods in Columbia killed 257 people and at one point 1.9 million people (5% of the country’s population) were affected. On December 6-8 the Panama Canal was closed because of flooding. This was only the 3rd time in history that the canal was closed and the first time as a result of weather.

A heat wave in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay sent temperatures as high as 44.3°C (111.7°F) at Prats Gil, Paraguay, near the all-time record for the country (45°C/113°F also set at Prats Gill), on December 11th. Jujuy, Argentina peaked at 42°C (107.6°F) the same day. Huge wildfires near Valparaiso, Chile blackened 14,000 acres of forest.

The cold wave and snow that engulfed Western Europe towards the end of November continued into December. In fact, on December 21 the temperature fell to -15°C (5°F) at Belfast, Northern Ireland, the coldest reading ever measured there. Castlederg reported -18.7°C (-1.7°F) for the coldest temperature on record for any location in Northern Ireland (old record -17.5°C at Magherally in January 1979). For the United Kingdom December was the coldest such since 1890 with temperatures averaging -5.6°C (-10.1°F) below the 30-year mean. A snowstorm December 17-20 dropped up to a 30cm (12”) of snow over portions of southern England including London resulting in massive travel disruptions.

The snow and cold were even more pronounced in the western and northern portions of continental Europe. For France it was the coldest December on record since 1969. In Sweden the coldest in 110 years, and in Germany the coldest in 40 years. Munich, Germany recorded 52” of snow for the month and Berlin 42”. Poland saw temperatures fall as low as -33°C (-27°F) on December 2 and Pozan received a total of 58” of snowfall during the month. 68 people were reported frozen to death in Poland.

Snow disrupts travel in Amsterdam, Holland. (photo from,

The worst floods in 100 years prompted the evacuation of thousands along the banks of the River Dina in Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro with water reaching the second floor of buildings in Foca, Bosnia.

The cause for the severe winter weather in Europe was an unusual high-pressure dome centered over Greenland and extending a strong ridge towards the British Isles. This region would normally be under the influence of an Icelandic low at this time of the year. A persistent low south of the Azores created (in combination with the Greenland high) a strong northeasterly flow over northern and western Europe ushering in cold continental air.

This plot of northern Hemispheric pressure compares December 2010 to the normal pattern observed between 1968-1996. (images courtesy of NOAA/ERL Physical Sciences Division).

A powerful winter storm blasted Egypt and other parts of the Middle East (see ASIA below) on December 10-12. Three people were killed by collapsing buildings in the port city of Alexandria where 60mm (2.3”) of rain fell.

An out-of-season heat wave developed over portions of West Africa in early September with Matam, Senegal reaching 41.8°C (107.2°F) on December 4th. This was the hottest temperature measured in the Northern Hemisphere during December 2010. In Namibia the temperature rose to 42.3°C (108.1°F) on December 27th in the town of Keetmanshoop, an all-time heat record for the site.

The same storm that blasted Egypt in mid-December also strongly affected Israel and Lebanon. Winds up to 110kph (68mph) were recorded in northern Israel and a Moldavian cargo ship foundered off the coast of Ashdod. Beirut recorded 98mm (3.86”) of rain in 24 hours on December 11-12 and Zefat, Israel had a storm total of 174.5mm (6.87”) December 10-12. The flooding rains followed an extended hot and dry period in Israel that culminated in a disastrous forest fire Near Haifa on December 1-5. 42 people died in the blaze including the nation’s highest-ranking female police officer, Ahuva Tomer.

Plumes of smoke from the fires in Israel trail out over the Mediterranean Sea. (photo from the Telegraph Newspaper, London)

Abnormally warm weather continued through December in most portions of the Middle East continuing a trend that began during the summer of 2010. For the 6th straight month record absolute maximum temperatures have been recorded at various sites in both Israel and Lebanon.

The eastern Siberian ‘pole of cold’ lived up to its reputation in December with Oymyakon reporting a minimum of -59.2°C (-74.6°F) on December 24th, the coldest temperature in the world for the month.

The big weather news from Australia in December were the major floods in Queensland towards the end of the month that continue to plague the state as of this writing. It has not been any single major rain event (the heaviest 24-hour rainfall so far reported was 273.6mm/10.77” at Carnarvon Station in central Queensland on December 27th) that contributed to the flooding but the persistence of the rainfall since tropical Cyclone Tasha made landfall on Christmas Day. For an in depth report on the flooding see Dr. Jeff Masters recent blogs.

Another exceptional precipitation event occurred in Western Australia at, ironically, another site named Carnarvon located about 900km north of Perth on December 17th. An amazing 204.8mm (8.06”) of rain fell. As Blair Trewin of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology remarked,

”This is not something which normally happens at this time of year to put it mildly - the monthly average for this site for December (66 years of data) is 1.8 mm, so they got almost twice as much rain today as they have in about 2000 previous December days put together! (and of the 118 mm in the past Decembers combined, 77 of that fell on one day in 1995 - before this event the second-wettest December day on record was 5.4 mm).”

The hottest temperature measured on earth for this past month was the 47.6°C (117.7°F) measured at Gascoyne Junction, Western Australia on December 27th. The tiny Australian island of Norfolk, located about halfway between New Zealand and New Caledonia, came within .2°C of its hottest temperature on record on December 29th when a reading of 28.2°C (82.8°F) was recorded. On the cold side, the town of Applethorpe in Queensland recorded a minimum temperature of 3.7°C (38.7°F) on December 21st. This was the 2nd coldest reading ever measured during December in the state.

The coldest temperature ever measured in the Southern Hemisphere during a December was registered at the Dome A site in Antarctica on December 1st and 2nd: -52.0°C (-61.6°F). The previous record was -48.0°C (-54.4°F) at Vostok on December 1, 1960.

KUDOS: Thanks to Maximilliano Herrera, Philip Eden, and Blair Trewin for contributing to this article.

Extreme Weather

Bird Falls

By: weatherhistorian, 5:43 AM GMT on January 05, 2011

Bird Falls

Apropos of the recent bird fall reported from Beebe, Arkansas this list of prior such events may be of interest. The list was provided by Prof. Randall Cerveny of Arizona State University. Comments and suggestions as to the plausible cause of this phenomena would be welcome!

I quote this list from Randy:

"I have in my archive of weird and unusual weather a list of twelve massive bird falls:

1. Baton Rouge LA: July 1896:
On Friday morning last early risers in the little capital [Baton Rouge LA] witnessed a peculiar sight in the shape of a shower of birds that fell from a clear sky, literally cluttering the streets of birds that fell from a clear sky, literally cluttering the streets of the city. There were wild ducks, catbirds, woodpeckers, and many birds of strange plumage, some of them resembling canaries, but all dead, falling in heaps along the thoroughfares, the singular phenomenon attracting many spectators and causing much comment. The most plausible theory as to the strange windfall is that the birds were driven inland by the recent storm on the Florida coast, the force of the current of air and the sudden change of temperature causing death to many of the feathered creatures when they reached Baton Rouge. Some idea of the extent of the shower may be gathered from the estimate that out on National Avenue alone the children of the neighborhood collected 200 birds.

2. Worthington MN, March 13, 1904:
750,000 Bird Fall. "Roberts tells the fate of migrating Lapland Longspurs on the night of March 13-14, 1904 which 'was very dark but not cold, and a heavy, wet snow was falling with but little wind stirring. Migrating Longspurs came from the Iowa prairies in a vast horde, and from 11 P.M. until morning, incredible numbers met their deaths in and about villages by flying against buildings, electric light poles and wires, and by dashing themselves forcibly onto the frozen ground and ice.' In Worthington, Minnesota, an attempt was made to compute the numbers lying dead on two lakes with an aggregate area of about two square miles. 'A conservative estimate showed that there were at least 750,000 dead Longspurs lying on the two lakes along!' The total area on which dead migrants were found covered approximately 1,500 square miles."

3. Shreveport LA, March 20, 1941: AP:
Blackbirds by the hundreds dropped dead from the sky at Barksdale Field. They cluttered the army airbase so thickly that its police were called out to clear the ground. A soldier said that large flocks of the birds broke flight suddenly and plopped to the ground. Some of the dead birds were taken to the post hospital, where surgeons began autopsies."

4. Pageland, SC, May 15, 1942:
Thousands of birds fell on the town of Pageland South Carolina on May 15, 1942.

5. New York City NY, September 11, 1948:
Thousands of birds (of various species) were killed when they crashed into the Empire State Building in New York City and into the transmitting tower of Radio Station WBAL in Baltimore. In this case, "there was no fog and weather conditions were good during the night and morning."

6. Warner Robbins Air Force Base, Georgia, October 7, 1954:
50,000 birds, representing 53 species littered the runways of Warner Robbins Air Force Base south of Macon, Georgia. "On the night of October 7-8, 1954, the largest recorded ceilometer kill in history occurred at Warner Robbins Air Force Base, a few miles south of Macon, Georgia. It involved 53 species and an estimated 50,000 birds, 2552 of which were examined... An advancing cold front in autumn is believed to have precipitated these mass mortalities by bringing together adverse weather conditions (especially a lowered cloud ceiling), nocturnal migrants, ceilometers and/or all obstructions."

7. Eau Claire, WI, September 20, 1957:
According to local Charles Kemper, a local bird watcher in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the largest single killed ever recorded was a 20,000 bird fall discovered on September 20, 1957. The article suggests radio towers as the cause.

8. Santa Cruz and Capitola, CA, August 18, 1961:
Sooty Shearwaters are large oceanic birds that migrate from Australia, New Zealand and South America every fall to the coastal waters of North America. On August 18, 1961, tons of dead and injured sooty shearwaters fell on the coast of California from Pleasure Point to Rio Del Mar, along Monterey Bay. Police officer Ed Cunningham first noticed the deluge of dead birds around 2:30 A.M. when large dead birds started crashing around his patrol car. "By the time I had stopped the car they were raining down all around me. They were big birds and they were falling so fast and hard they could have knocked me senseless," he recalled. "I thought I had better stay in the car and that's just what I did." Eventually driving from Capitola for about five miles to West Cliff Drive, however, Cunningham found the shore highway and beach also covered with dead birds. At sunrise, the carnage was even more dramatic - bird carcasses covered power lines, fence posts, shrubbery and TV antennas. Authorities identified the large birds as a type of petrel known as the sooty shearing. A few of the creatures survived their plunge to earth and eventually flew away. Experts who examined the dead birds confirmed they were killed by the fall.Thousands of birds, the corpses up to 16 inches long with wing spans of more than 3 feet. They lay everywhere. Several thousand were still alive but unable to fly; those live birds taken by local people down to the ocean recovered. No explanation has been accepted for the cause of the fall.

9. New York City, NY, September 29, 1970:
Thousands of birds crashed into the Empire State Building. It was supposed that they had been attracted by floodlighting but on that evening the tower lights had been turned off a few hours before they hit.

10. Winfield KS, January 22, 1998: MSNBC.
On January 22, 1998 up to 10,000 birds, mostly lapland longspures were slaughtered at a tower during a West Kansas snowstorm. According to Eugene Young, a professor at Southwestern College in Winfield Kansas, "There were birds scattered all around the agricultural fields, up to a quarter-mile from the tower. And you could see birds that were impaled on the stubble. It was milo or wheat stubble. The birds actually flew into the ground hard enough."

11. Orlando, FL, August 17, 2001: Orlando Sentinel:
Nearly a hundred birds dropped from trees or even in mid-flight about 6 P.M. in downtown Orlando's Lake Eola Park on Friday. Most were grackles and pigeons but at least one duck also was found dead. Park rangers quickly informed hundreds of people gathered to watch an outdoor movie (Chicken Run) not to touch the birds. Witnesses were shocked: "I didn't know what was going on," said Ruth Vlahakes, 26, walking in the park with her sister, Sarah, "I knew something was weird. I saw a bird, then she saw one, then there was another one, and another one. Every time we went around we saw another dead bird."

12. Sangongian village, Jiangsu province, China, February 3, 2004: London Mail&Guardian:
More than 10,000 bird fell from the sky onto eastern China's Jiangsu province, the state media reported. The Beijing Youth Daily reported that flocks of bramble finch suddenly fell from the sky onto the Sangongvillage in taizhou city. Experts from the Jiangsu province agriculture department that because the birds died while in flight, the cause of death may have been contamination in their food, water or environment. The birds looked like sparrows and were small in size.

Randall S. Cerveny
President's Professor of Geographical Sciences
School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning
Arizona State University

Bird Falls

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Weather Extremes

About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.