2011 Summer Off to a Bad Start

NOAA Current 2011 Summer WeatherCredit: NOAA

Summer 2011 has been one for the record books. After a dismal spring in most regions, the summer has been awful. To top it off, there was a lot of snow in most areas which melted and caused extensive flooding. This gives 2011 the distinction of having practically every kind of weather disaster that can be imagined. This is not just a North American situation either. Floods, rain, tornados and wildfires have been experienced around the world as well.

With the heavy snowpack during the winter of 2010/2011, many western mountains and the plains were deeply covered. Due to the cool spring, the snow persisted longer than normal. When it did melt, the rivers were already high due to extensive rainfall in many regions. This resulted in flooded fields, destroyed infrastructure and ruined houses in many parts of North America. Even into July, many areas remain too soggy to allow planting of crops. Farmers keep watching for dry weather and are disappointed. For some, they will not be able to get full crops in 2011.

Early in the fire season, the city of Slave Lake, Alberta, was severely impacted by fires. Many of the houses were destroyed as whole neighborhoods were scorched. Luckily, the fires were controlled before the city was completely obliterated. Other major fires have raged in California but the biggest problem may have been in Los Alamos, New Mexico. There, a large fire forced the evacuation of the city. People were safe but the flames advanced on the Los Alamos National Laboratory and its nuclear materials. For a time, it seemed that the laboratory was in dire danger but firefighters were able to contend with the fire, finally. Of course, there is still August and September left of the 2011 fire season. If the weather is hot and dry, there could be significant, or staggering, damage by wildfire yet this year.

Lightning is a major factor for many wildfires. Extensive lightning storms have been reported in many areas across North America. These often spark fires that rage in the tinder dry forests. With hotter weather likely, real dangers arise for many areas. Of course, a lot of these areas had wetter than normal spring seasons. This allowed vegetation to grow thick. As the weather dries the forest, this lush vegetation can contribute to stronger, and more dangerous, fires later in the year.

Starting with extensive damage and many lives lost in the spring, tornadoes have continued into the summer. Even Alberta, Canada has had these devastating events, an area seldom affected by such weather.  As of June 25, 2011, there had been more tornadoes in 2011 than in any other year up to that point. With nearly half a year to go, there seems to be a chance that 2011 will become the worst year for tornadoes on record. Those people in the regions likely to be hit should heed warnings and prepare survival kits.

Dust Storm
In early July, a major dust and sand storm hit Phoenix, Arizona. This event was captured on video by many people in the area. The event, (known as a haboob in some parts of the world), spread 50 miles across and reach 8000 to 10000 feet in the sky. Not surprisingly, airports were shut down. The storm also knocked out electricity for thousands of people.

Heat Wave
Much of the North American continent was gripped in an intense heat wave in June and July. Temperatures topped 100F/34C for weeks. Oklahoma City saw a high of 130F, very unusual for that area at any time. Extensive ranges have had severe heat weather advisories. Even as far north as Detroit and Toronto, heat has been oppressive. Humidity has been bad in many areas as well. This heat is quite a contrast to conditions on the west coast which have been cooler and wetter during the early summer of 2011.

June 1st is the start of the hurricane season. This year, there was one significant cyclone prior to the start of the season. Time will tell just how severe 2011 is for these events. With the luck that we are having so far, however, people should likely be much more cautious than normal. Prepare necessary supplies well in advance of any threatening storms in your area. This is mainly true for people in the areas most normally affected by hurricanes, but likely everyone should take the time now to ensure that they have their own survival kits nearby.

Arctic Ice Level ComparisonCredit: University of Illinois

Arctic Ice Pack
As the climate has been warming in recent years, the extent of the polar ice pack has been declining in the Arctic. Both the area covered in ice and its thickness have been decreasing rapidly. Although 2011 has been cool in the north so far, there could be a substantial reduction in northern ice levels yet. As the photo from the University of Illinois shows, the loss of Arctic ice is quite graphic when compared with a historical date. Of course, ice levels from 50 or 100 years ago were substantially higher than they were in 1989. Like the 2011 hurricane season, the northern warming season is just beginning now. Temperatures are getting higher now. Ice is starting to melt. How much melts in 2011 won't be known for some time. Even though the days are getting shorter for most of the Northern Hemisphere, the far north is under perpetual daylight right now. The ice will be melting for months, likely right through September. This means that a vast amount of ice may disappear in the Arctic in the summer of 2011.

Mountain Pine Beetle
This insect is not a weather event, of course, but it has been unleashed on North America because of the weather. The destructive pest has decimated pine trees in British Columbia for some years now. It is susceptible to cold winters. The temperatures during the 2010/2011 winter were not cold enough, however, to destroy very many pine beetles. As a result, swarms of the insects have been spreading across the western states and Alberta. They bore into pine trees and destroy them by inhibiting the flow of sap. Hundreds of thousands of trees have been killed already. The beetle has begun to attack all forms of pine, not just its preferred species since it has killed off so many Northern Pine trees. As a result, Lodgepole Pine trees in North America are now at substantial risk. During the 2011 summer, expect to see many more thousands of trees destroyed by the mountain pine beetle. With warmer winters, the beetle infestation of forests is not expected to be halted until they have destroyed all available pine trees. Whether they then switch to a different type of tree to plague, or they just die out, we will have to wait to see.