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Category: Weather History

Birmingham’s Coldest Period

| 9:30 am January 26, 2015

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On the morning of January 26, 1940, Alabama and the Deep South were in the deep freeze. And had been for over a week. Headlines on the Birmingham Age-Herald were dominated by the cold and additional snow that had fallen the day before.

But there were also disturbing news from Europe, where the Nazis were threatening to attack Romania for their oil. And the British were planning defense against Nazi air raids. Closer to home, a serious coal shortage was leading to negotiations between the governor and miners for increased production through suspension of work rules.

The forecast for the 26th was for partly cloudy and not as cold conditions. But Friday the 26th would be just as cold as the day before, when the high was 20F. And lows by Saturday morning the 27th would again be 1F.

At 7 a.m., Birmingham Weather Bureau Chief E.C. Horton measured the temperature on the thermometer his observation shelter at 1.2F. There was still 7 inches of snow on the ground. The airport reading, the official location now, was –5F, but the max/min thermometer showed a minimum reading of -6F.

Across North Alabama, temperatures were below zero, including -6F in Florence and -2F in Huntsville.

Horton saw no relief in sight, and called for lows to drop to below zero over northern sections the coming night, with overnight lows foro the coming night between 6F and 22F.

The cold had been unprecedented in its duration. It had arrived on the night of January 18th as temperatures plummeted from 34F that afternoon to 2F the following morning. The ercury would not go above freezing until the afternoon of the 21st, and then only to a high of 37F.

The next day would see a high of 42F, but snow would fall much of the night of the 22nd and day of the 23rd, until .5 inches had fallen and a total of 10 inches was on the ground. The thermometer would not recover for the next week. Between the 23rd and 28th, the warmest it would get in Birmingham was 34F.

By the 26th, Skaters were actually able to skate on the frozen surface of the Black Warrior River west of Birmingham, where ice was siz inches thick near the banks. Nineteen inches of snow was on the ground at Berry in Fayette County, a record that still stands. An unheard of event!

1950’s January Thaw

| 1:00 pm January 25, 2015

The January thaw is a weather singularity. A singularity is an event that occurs more often than one would expect with chance.

The January thaw is a period of above normal warmth that frequently occurs in mid-Winter in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. It is similar to Indian summer, another singularity which occurs in autumn. The January thaw usually occurs around the third week in January.

It was more like a January tropical heat wave than a thaw during this week in 1950. Much of the eastern United States was experiencing temperatures 25-30 degrees above normal by my birthday, January 25th. Of course, I hadn’t been born then. Cotton was blooming in South Carolina, some five months ahead of schedule. People worried that Mother Nature was out of control.

In actuality, a strong high pressure system off the Atlantic Coast was responsible for the 1950 January thaw. A very high amplitude pattern featured a big upper level ridge over the East and a very deep trough over the western U.S. The strong surface high was producing a strong southerly flow that bathed much of the eastern United States in warmth. High temperatures on the 25th included 87F in Del Rio, Texas; 83F in Little Rock; 78F in Nashville; 74F in Columbus, Ohio; 78F in Washington, D.C. and 80F in Augusta, Georgia. It was 78F in Birmingham and 80F in Montgomery. Birmingham recorded record highs on the 24th (78F), 25th (78F), and the 26th (76F).

Several January high temperature records were set, including Michigan’s with 72F at Ann Arbor and Chicago with 67F.

Meanwhile, bitter cold and snow was occurring over the Northern Plains. Morning lows on t he 25th included -34F at Williston, North Dakota and -32F in Glasgow, Montana.

The November 1950 Cold Wave

| 9:00 am November 23, 2014

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Alabamians paid little attention to the weather forecast on Thanksgiving morning, November 23, 1950. The Birmingham News carried a lead article about the many blessings of the day, including bountiful food, talking about the day’s candied yams, crisp white celery, plump olives and a golden brown roasted turkey. Headlines told of a Thanksgiving Eve crash between two Long Island Railroad trains in New York City that killed 76 people. There were hopes that the Korean War might be ending, bolstered by hints that China might be willing to sit down for peace talks. Over 36,000 people made their way to Legion Field for the annual Crippled Children’s Classic at Legion Field. The game featured the Phillips Red Raiders and Woodlawn Colonels. It would raise $95,000 for the new Crippled Children’s Hospital. As the game kicked off at 2 p.m., the temperature at the Birmingham Airport was a balmy 70 degrees.

The fine holiday weather belied the fact that a major cold wave was overspreading the U.S. east of the Rockies. Birmingham’s official weatherman, Charles Bradley, warned that the mild afternoon and nice weather was going to be followed by a quick turn to winter. The afternoon highs near 70 would be replaced with overnight lows in the 30s. Highs the following day would remain steady or fall. Fans in shirt sleeves at Legion Field got a rude awakening when the temperature fell into the 50s by the fourth quarter of a 20-0 Phillips victory. By late evening, readings were in the lower 40s with a north wind averaging over 20 mph. To the north, it was getting interesting. It was 18F in Nashville with heavy snow. It was 25F in Memphis with moderate snow and a north wind averaging over 30 mph. The snow was reaching Northwest Alabama.

By 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, it was down to 32F at Birmingham with snow. Four inches of snow was on the ground at Tuscumbia. An inch was on the ground in the Magic City. Roads were hazardous all over North Alabama. Dozens of accidents were being reported. By late morning, US-31 was impassable as far south as Clanton. By 10:30 a.m., the mercury had plummeted further, to 21F at the Birmingham Airport.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team boarded a charter plane at the Birmingham Airport, bound for Jacksonville and a Saturday tilt with Florida. With two losses, Alabama needed a victory to seal a major bowl bid. Tennessee was already paired with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Kentucky coach Paul Bryant was preparing his Wildcats for a Sugar Bowl date with Oklahoma in New Orleans. The Birmingham News carried rumors that the Bear might be nosing around for a job in Texas, while mentioning that Alabama was his alma mater.

In his afternoon forecast, the weatherman was calling for an overnight low between 12-15F. Good thing for Mr. Bradley that the three degree guarantee had not been invented, because with screaming cold air advection, the temperature would already be at 15 by midnight, on the way to a low of 5F. It is the coldest November reading ever in Birmingham. The second coldest November reading ever is 13F, underscoring the significance of the record. Fresh snow would fall across the northern half of the state on Saturday as the Great Appalachian Storm spun up over Ohio.

JB would call it a cold wave. I call it just another story from the pages of this week in weather history.

An Important Anniversary in Hurricane Forecasting

| 3:30 pm July 27, 2014

In July 1943, tracking hurricanes was a difficult business. Fewer ships were at sea because of the threat of German U-boats. Those that were at sea maintained radio silence. Britain suffered mightily from the lack of weather reports from over the Atlantic. The Brits were forced to use precious aircraft to fly weather observation missions. The U.S. feared that the West Indies would become a major theater of war if the Germans decided to attack through Central and South America.

In Bryan, Texas, Col. James P. Duckworh was in charge of the Instrument Flying Instruction School. Before the 1930s, there wasn’t any such thing as instrument flying. Everything was visual. Duckworth had been a pilot for Eastern Air Transport, the precursor to Eastern Airlines. He had resigned to go to active duty with the Army Air Corps Reserve. Duckworth said that he knew that the war wasn’t going to stop because of weather.

Weather map from the morning of July 27, 1943.

Weather map from the morning of July 27, 1943.

On the morning of Sunday, July 27th, Col. Duckworth made his way to the base to have breakfast. As he ate, he learned that there was a hurricane making landfall near Galveston. Hard to believe, since it was a beautiful morning at Bryan, about 100 miles from Galveston. The storm was expected to pass near Houston during the afternoon. Duckworth saw it as the perfect opportunity to do what no one had done intentionally up to that time: fly into a hurricane.

Joe suggested to one of his breakfast companions, Lt. Ralph O’Hair that they take an single engine AT-6 trainer and fly into the storm for fun. There were four new B-25‘s at the base, but it would be hard to justify using one of them for this unsanctioned mission. As 100 mph winds were raking the coast. Duckworth and O’Hair took off for Galveston. Enroute, they called the tower at Houston and said they were flying Galveston. The incredulous operator asked them if they knew there was a hurricane. When they said yes, the controller asked for updates so he would be able to direct crews to the wreckage.

As they flew toward the hurricane, they were in the weaker western semicircle of the storm. As they neared the eyewall, they experienced violent up and down turbulence that made them feel like a “bone in a dog’s mouth”. Suddenly, they broke into the clear air of the eye. They flew around for a few minutes and headed back to the base where they were met by the staff meteorological officer. The weatherman wanted to know why they had not included him in their historic flight. They responded by telling him to hop in, they would take him to the center. The meteorologist kept a very detailed diary of observations.

Duckworth did not immediately realize the significance of his feat. Later that year, one of his superiors summoned him to tell the pilot that he had been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross. The unassuming Colonel did receive the Air Medal for flying into a hurricane for the first time, twice in the same day.

Realizing the benefit of more specific information on hurricanes, regular reconnaissance flights were started the next year. Weather Bureau meteorologists used the information about 1944’s Great Atlantic Hurricane to issue better warnings.

On This Date in 1980

| 10:00 am July 12, 2014

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Headlines on Saturday, July 12, 1980 focused on the Iranian hostage crisis, which was in its 292nd day. One of the hostages had been released by the Ayatollah for “humanitarian reasons”. The GOP was putting the finishing touches on its platform prior to their national convention in Detroit.

There were fears that Mt. Hood in Oregon was getting ready to erupt, a la Mount St. Helens, since quakes had been shaking the area. A hijacker in Seattle had been given $100,000 and a parachute as he seemed destined to be the next D.B. Cooper. The economy was in the tank, with talk that the extended recession was comparable to the Great Depression in many ways.

The movies that were playing then included The Shining and Airplane.

High temperatures from July 12, 1980 courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project

High temperatures from July 12, 1980 courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project. Click image to enlarge.

But the big news across the southern United States was the heat. Birmingham was in the middle of a thirteen day heat wave, with temperatures 90F or higher for those thirteen days. The mercury reached at least 100F on eight consecutive days. The high temperature at the Birmingham Airport topped out at 104F on that Saturday, the hottest it had been so far in the hot spell. The next day would see 106F, the hottest of the heat wave.

Air conditioning repair companies were doing a land office business. Bank managers resorted to putting blocks of ice in front of electric fans to “cool off the girls” in the drive-thrus. The local Coca-Cola bottler reported that soft drink sales were up 35 percent.

The weather page in the Birmingham News wistfully noted that it was midwinter in Australia.

The toll was beginning to rise across Alabama. At least four deaths had been reported so far. Before it was over, at least 120 Alabamians lost their lives to heat related illnesses. 200,000 chickens also succumbed to the extreme heat.

The June-September 1980 Heat Wave is the first billion dollar weather-related disaster in U.S. history. Damage to agriculture and related industries was estimated at $20 billion. The sweltering weather claimed the lives of over 10,000 Americans.

The Rapid City Flood

| 10:00 am June 9, 2014

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On this date in 1972, the Rapid City flood devastated much of the South Dakota city. The disaster occurred after the Canyon Lake Dam failed in the wake of 10-15 inches of rain, sending a wall of water down the already swollen Rapid Creek at 10:45 p.m. Frantic evacuation orders were issued at 10:40 p.m., giving precious minutes for people to flee.

A total of 238 people died.

Canyon Lake is dammed once again and now the flood plain is a series of parks, golf courses and bike paths, which should minimize damage from future floods.

Nationally, the 1970s were the worst decade for flash floods in U.S. history. Devastating floods struck Buffalo Creek, WV (125 fatalities), Big Thompson Canyon, CO (145 fatalities), Johnstown, PA (76 fatalities), Toccoa Falls, GA (39 fatalities) and Kansas City, MO (23 fatalities), as well as the Rapid City Flood.

Flash floods killed an average of 127 people each year in the United States between 1972-2001. Improvements in forecasting and warning have been effective in reducing the death toll since then. No single flash flood has killed more than 100 people since 1980.

Between 1984-2013, that 30 year average dropped to 85 and the ten year average is now down to 75.

Remembering the Greensburg EF5 (2007)

| 9:36 am May 4, 2014

On the morning of May 4, 2007, it was evident that an outbreak of severe weather was imminent across the Plains states of the U.S.

The Storm Prediction Center realized the threat and posted a Moderate Risk outlook for the region from the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma into Kansas and Nebraska. A powerful upper level trough was over the West with strong low pressure over Colorado with very moist Gulf of Mexico air being drawn northward. Instability values were sky high, with CAPE values running as high as 5,500 j/kg! An approaching dry line triggered supercell thunderstorms during the evening from north Texas to southwestern Kansas. With plenty of wind shear, the storms quickly became severe.

I was manning the blog on the evening of May 4, 2007 as events unfolded in Kansas. Here is a post as the tornado approached Greensburg.

I was manning the blog on the evening of May 4, 2007 as events unfolded in Kansas. Here is a post as the tornado approached Greensburg.

One tremendous supercell storm formed about 5 p.m. in the Texas Panhandle and moved northeast. CAPE values were around 5,200 j/kg over Southwest Kanasas, and the 0-2 km helicity was 240 m2s2. This made the EHI 7.8! Readings over 2 are nearly always associated with big tornadoes. The storm that this environment produced would bear twenty tornadoes during its long life, including four massive tornadoes that were on the ground continuously for three hours.

The largest tornado in the family touched down in Comanche County, Kansas at 9:03 p.m. and crossed into Kiowa County a short time later. The first tornado warning for Comanche County was issued at 8:13 p.m. The first tornado warning for Kiowa County was issued at 8:55 p.m. Another warning was issued at 9:19 p.m. that specifically mentioned Greensburg and stated that it was a confirmed tornado. A call was placed to Kiowa County. Sirens started sounding.

The massive tornado entered the south side of the town of Greensburg at 9:45 p.m. It would plow directly through the heart of the town and it’s tree lined streets. It took several minutes for the giant lawnmower of a storm to roar through Greensburg, destroying ninety five percent of the town. When it was all over, virtually nothing was left standing in the 1.7 mile wide path.

The Greensburg tornado was the first to be rated as an EF5 on the new enhanced Fujita scale was implemented and the first tornado rated at the top of the scale since the Oklahoma City tornado in May 1999. Winds were estimated at 205 mph.

The warnings from the NWS, dissemination from the media and coordination with emergency management were superb and sirens sounded twenty minutes before the twister struck. Countless lives were spared by the advance warnings, but still eleven people died in the horrific destruction, some in basements. The disaster presented town officials and residents with a unique opportunity to rebuild, and leaders are choosing to do it in a green manner using environmentally friendly practices.

Alabama’s Deadliest 1991 Tornado was an F1

| 12:14 pm March 29, 2014
From The Tuscaloosa News

From The Tuscaloosa News

Hoyt Watts awakened around 5:35 a.m. on the morning of March 29, 1991 in his home on Highway 21 in Mumford in Talladega County.  It was storming outside.  Storming bad.  The wind was roaring loudly and lightning was flashing as thunder sounded continuously.  He looked out the window and could not believe his eyes.  A mobile home was flying through the air.  Airborne.  Sixty or seventy feet in the air.  As he watched in shock, the trailer home exploded in midair.

It was the mobile home of his son Ronnie.  He dressed frantically and rushed to search for his son and his family.  Ronnie’s wife Lisa and their sons had been at home.

They found Lisa dead, blown about 75 yards, with her one of the children in her arms.  Over a quarter of a mile away, they found Ronnie’s body with the remains of the mobile home.  The other son was critically injured, but died later.

How could it have happened?  Ronnie knew that mobile homes were vulnerable to high winds.  He had taken extra care to tie down their home with steel straps, as was the recommendation.  But the tornado snapped those straps and sent the trailer flying like a crumpled ball of aluminum foil.

Four people died in this one home.  A fifth person died in another mobile home.

When the National Weather Service did the storm survey, it was hard to imagine this would turn out to be the deadliest tornado of the year in Alabama.  The tornado was only on the ground for one mile and had a path width of just 300 feet.  But it found eight mobile homes with deadly accuracy.  In addition to the five fatalities, there were 13 injuries. 

Perhaps the most amazing fact was that the tornado only attained an F1 ranking.  This serves as a powerful reminder that even small, weak tornadoes can kill…