Extreme Weather and Climate Change: The Midwest
WHAT WE KNOW
Devastating deluges, record floods and deadly heat waves have raised the question of whether there’s a connection between these events and global warming.
The bottom line answer is yes: Heat waves are longer and hotter than they used to be and some regions are suffering from catastrophic drought. Heavy rains are more frequent and can be more intense, and rainfall records have been smashed. These events fit a pattern that climate scientists have long expected to appear as the result of increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. That doesn’t mean global warming is the only culprit: extreme weather was happening before global warming began. But there’s general scientific agreement that global warming has contributed to a trend toward more intense extremes of heat and precipitation around the world, is partly to blame for specific extreme weather events over the last decade and will continue to influence both in the future.
Above-normal rain and melting snow caused record releases from upstream dams in Spring 2011. Credit: Columbia Missourian.
Spring 2011 brought some of the worst flooding in history, from the Upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico. Snowmelt and more than three times the normal spring rainfall in the Ohio Valley made rivers, including the Ohio, Missouri and the Mississippi overflow their banks along with many smaller tributaries. The Mississippi River crested at either record or near-record levels from Illinois all the way to Louisiana.
2011 Rain and Floods
- More than 1,300 daily precipitation records were broken during April across the Midwest and South. For the month, 72 locations reported their rainiest day in any April on record and five of these stations set a new all-time record for the rainiest 24-hour period for any month, the National Climatic Data Center reported.
On May 2, the Army Corps of Engineers breached part of the Birds Point-New Madrid Levee near where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers come together, flooding 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland, but protecting the small Illinois town of Cairo.
On May 9, officials opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana, which diverted floodwaters into Lake Pontchartrain. Later, officials also opened part of the Morganza Spillway to reduce pressure on levees that protect New Orleans from flooding.
In Minot, North Dakota, the overflowing Souris River forced about 11,000 residents to evacuate and flooded 4,000 homes.
Waters from the Mississippi River flooded Yazoo City, Mississippi, where the crest reached 38.7 feet, close to the record set during a devastating flood in 1927, and nearly ten feet above flood stage.
- In Memphis, the Mississippi crested at 47.9 feet, the highest there since 1937. The 2011 flood also set an all-time record in Vicksburg, Mississippi where the Mississippi crested at 57.1 feet on May 18. In Natchez, Mississippi, the river rose about four feet higher than the previous record set in 1937.
The Missouri River also caused record floods due to above average spring precipitation and a record to near-record snowpack that contributed large amounts of river runoff. In Wyoming and Montana for the month of May, a total of 14 locations set precipitation records and seven locations set a new all-time record for the rainiest 24-hour period for any month on record.
According to the National Climate Data Center, the flooding resulted in at least $800 million of damage to Mississippi agriculture, $500 million in damage to Arkansas agriculture and $320 million in overall damages to Memphis, Tennessee.
- Overall, roughly 3.5 million acres of farmland were flooded in the Lower Mississippi Valley including 900,000 acres in Mississippi (that’s 10 percent of the state’s total) and 1 million in Arkansas. Across the nation, 6.8 million acres of farm and non-farm land were inundated during the spring of 2011 — one of the worst flood disasters in American history.
2011 Snow Storms
While most of the headline-grabbing snowstorms of 2011 affected Northeastern cities like New York, the Midwest was slammed as well, especially by a blizzard that struck in early February, paralyzing a region that is used to plenty of snow.
According to NOAA, the “Groundhog Day Blizzard,” which crippled travel in the Midwest and stranded motorists on Lakes Shore Drive in Chicago, dropped one to two feet in some areas, with 22 states getting at least five inches of snow.
- The Groundhog Day Blizzard was one of Chicago’s top five snowstorms on record. It caused more than $1.8 billion in total losses and 36 weather-related deaths.
In mid July, much of the nation sweltered under a “heat dome” that brought roasting heat and sweltering humidity to much of the eastern two thirds of the country. At its worst, more than 140 million Americans were under a heat advisory or excessive heat warning, with the heat index—a measure of discomfort that combines both heat and humidity and describes how hot it actually feels—reaching brutal levels typical of the area surrounding the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.
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