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Rubble in the wake of the devastating Alabama tornado outbreak on April 27, from Tuscaloosa. (NOAA)

In a year marked by a relentless assault of extreme weather, several events stand out. Some, like the tornado that leveled Joplin, Missouri on May 22. were extraordinarily devastating and deadly. Others – such as the “Snowtober” storm that buried the Northeast under a crushing load of heavy, wet snow – were downright freakish. In a typical weather year, one might expect a few extreme events like these.

But this was no ordinary year. At times it seemed as if Mother Nature was on steroids, slamming Americans with one deadly event after another (a good case can be made that Mother Nature is, in fact, on steroids, thanks to global warming). Consider this: according to NOAA, there were at least 12 events that cost a billion dollars or more, an all-time record (there were 14 such events by other measures). More than 1,000 people died from weather-related causes this year, most of them from tornadoes, and more than 8,000 people were injured, according to the National Weather Service.

Related link: Guest blog post on U.S. extreme weather in 2011 by CWG’s Jason Samenow for the BBC

As we’ve covered on this blog, scientific research shows that global warming is likely increasing the odds and severity of certain extreme events, such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events. These aren’t exactly comforting findings, given what transpired this year.

Here are the top 5 extreme weather events of 2011.

Aerial view of damage from April 27, Tuscaloosa tornado (NOAA) 1. The April 25-28 Tornado Outbreak.

This was the year of the twister, and multiple tornado outbreaks exacted a heavy price in terms of lives lost. The death toll from many of this year’s tornadoes were so high (tied for second highest on record) that the National Weather Service has embarked on a broad-scale effort to reexamine how it educates the public about tornado risks, and how tornado warnings are worded and disseminated.

The deadliest of this year’s outbreaks occurred in late April. During a four-day period from April 25 to 28, more than 200 tornadoes touched down in five southeastern states. The deadliest day was April 27th, when 316 people died – mainly in Alabama and Mississippi – from 122 tornadoes.

On that day, major tornadoes tore through the cities of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, and all-but wiped out many rural communities. The Tuscaloosa-Birmingham EF-4 tornado was on the ground for more than 80 miles, and seven other tornadoes stayed on the ground for at least 50 miles.

April 2011 now ranks as the most active tornado month on record with 753 tornadoes, beating the previous record of 542 tornadoes set in May 2003. NOAA has put the total number of April tornado-related fatalities at 364.

The most intense tornadoes flattened some communities. Here’s what a Weather Service storm damage assessment team found in the small town of Phil Campbell, Alabama, after a tornado tore through there on April 27th.

Along Bonner Street, multiple block homes were leveled to the ground with the block foundations destroyed. A twenty-five foot section of pavement was sucked up and scattered. Chunks of the pavement were found in a home over 1/3 of a mile down the road. The damage in this area was consistent with EF-5 damage.

2. Joplin, Missouri EF-5 Tornado

Radar image of thunderstorm that spawned the catastrophic May 22 Joplin tornado. The bright pink area, or “debris ball” shows where the radar was sensing debris from the tornado.On May 22, the small city of Joplin, Missouri joined the list of cities whose names are synonymous with tornado disasters and recovery efforts, when an EF-5 tornado swept through the heart of the city, destroying nearly everything in its path. The Joplin tornado killed 160 people and injured about 1,000 more, becoming the seventh-deadliest tornado in U.S. history, and the deadliest since modern recordkeeping began in 1950. The Joplin tornado had maximum winds estimated at 210 mph, reached a width of at least a mile wide, and remained on the ground for six miles – just long enough to devastate the city.

The tornado was part of a larger, multi-day outbreak during which 180 tornadoes touched down in the central and southern states, resulting in more than $9.1 billion in total losses, according to NOAA.

3. The Triple Threat of Drought, Heat and Wildfires

One of the costliest natural disasters of the year evolved over a longer timespan and across broader geographic region, as drought conditions parched the Texas landscape and portions of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas and Louisiana. In Texas, the drought was the most intense one-year drought on record, with direct losses to crops, livestock and timber of close to $10 billion.

The drought was aggravated by record heat, with many locations across the Southern Plains setting records for the most 100-degree days, including San Angelo, Texas, which reached the century mark on 98 days this year. Oklahoma had the hottest summer of any state in American history, just edging out Texas, which came in second. Oklahoma’s average July temperature was 88.9 degrees, making it the warmest month in any state on record.

The dry conditions forced ranchers to send their cattle to the slaughterhouse early. According to recent reports, 2011 saw the largest-ever one-year decrease in the number of Texas cattle, a loss of about 600,000 cattle in just one year. This may translate to higher beef prices in 2012, due to a below average supply.

The drought and heat also set the stage for the worst wildfires in Texas state history, including the Bastrop fire, which was the state’s most destructive wildfire on record. Wildfires also charred vast stretches of Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. In fact, Arizona and New Mexico both saw their largest wildfires on record. At one point, the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico, which burned over 150,000 acres, threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Related links: Latest Texas drought outlook: grim with a few drops of hope
Drought-fueled wildfires burn out of control in Texas

4. Hurricane Irene

Irene making landfall in New York City on August 28, 2011. (NOAA) Hurricane Irene, which made landfall in North Carolina as a Category One storm on August 27, will be remembered mainly for two things:one being the devastating inland flooding the storm caused from New Jersey to Vermont. The second concerns what it (fortunately) did not do – cause significant coastal flooding in the New York City area.

Nevertheless, Irene managed to grind life to a halt in the city that never sleeps – with the first ever shutdown of mass transit, including all three airports, and mandatory evacuations of people from vulnerable parts of the city. Because the storm was weaker than expected when it struck the city – as a tropical storm rather than a hurricane – the damage was far less than feared. However, as Jeff Masters has detailed at Weather Underground, the lack of damage in New York City should not be taken as a sign that the city is safe from such storms.

Irene reserved her worst for a sneak attack on inland areas. After an extremely wet summer, Irene’s rains caused record flooding in New Jersey, New York and Vermont. Many of Vermont’s iconic covered bridges were washed away, and entire communities became cut off from transportation routes. The storm also caused massive power outages, with upwards of seven million homes and businesses without power at the height of the storm, according to NOAA.

Related links: Was Irene overhyped?
Irene lashes areas from New York to New England

NASA satellite image showing “Snowtober” pulling away into the Atlantic, with an extensive snow cover from Vermont to West Virginia. (NASA) 5. “Snowtober”

Just as the Northeast was beginning to bounce back from Irene, the region was walloped by an early season winter storm that rewrote the history books. Heavy snow fell at a time when most trees still had most of their leaves; causing widespread power outages that in at least one state – Connecticut – eclipsed the outages caused by Irene. As I wrote on this blog:

To put the storm into its proper meteorological context, consider these snowy facts. The storm brought thundersnow to New York City shortly past lunchtime on Saturday, October 29, before the city had even recorded its first freeze. Central Park received 2.9 inches of snow, with up to six inches falling in the Bronx. This was the only time in recorded history that an inch or more of snow has fallen in Central Park during the month of October.

Jaffrey, New Hampshire, recorded 31.4 inches of snow, and 32 inches fell in Peru, Mass. In Concord, N.H., 22.5 inches fell in just 16 hours. October snowfall records were smashed in Hartford, Connecticut, which received 12.3 inches; Worcester, Mass., where 14.6 inches fell; and Newark, NJ, where 5.2 inches piled up.

The timing of this storm made it a high impact event, although it would have been noteworthy for its intensity and heavy snowfall even if it had occurred in February.

By  |  10:49 AM ET, 12/27/2011

Posted at 02:41 PM ET, 01/04/2012

For Earth’s climate system, 2011 was an extraordinarily turbulent year. The United States saw a series of record-busting extremes, from a devastating tornado season to an epic drought in a vital agricultural region. The fusillade of extreme events kept global warming in the public conversation even as it slipped to the bottom of the public’s list of concerns in the face of a grim economy, and as “climate” became a four-letter word in Washington.
AFP PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2011 This aerial image shows partially-submerged vehicles sitting stranded in floodwaters at a roundabout in the Thai ancient capital city of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, on October 16, 2011. (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT – AFP/GETTY IMAGES) Scientists made tangible progress in the emerging area of extreme event attribution, which aims to answer whether extreme weather events can be attributed to climate change, with two studies that shed new light on how a warmer world is already shifting the odds in favor of heavy precipitation events. These studies, and the push to develop the capabilities necessary to rapidly distinguish global warming’s role in extreme events soon after they occur, top the list of the top climate change stories of 2011:1. Advances in understanding global warming and extreme weather

Two studies published in February in the journal Nature made it a lot clearer that manmade global warming is already playing a tangible role in influencing some types of extreme weather events.

One study, led by researchers with Environment Canada, analyzed heavy rainfall events recorded at more than 6,000 sites across the Northern Hemisphere, and found that the growing amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere have likely increased the frequency of heavy precipitation events across this region.

The second study demonstrated a new way of analyzing how manmade global warming may have increased the chances for a particular flood that occurred in the U.K. in 2000. The high-resolution computer model used for the study showed that global warming increased the risk of the 2000 flood event by at least 20 percent, with two-thirds of the computer model simulations showing a much larger increase in flood risk, by up to 90 percent.

As I detailed in September, climate scientists are moving forward with plans to form an international extreme events attribution group, which will focus on advancing this type of work.

Also on the extreme events front, in November, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.”

As CWG’s Jason Samenow reported:

The report by the United Nations Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change makes clear that warm weather extremes and heavy precipitation events have increased, most likely as a result of manmade climate change. And it projects with a high degree of confidence increasing hot weather and heavy downpours in the future.

2. Surface temperature record holds up to (another) review

For years, global warming skeptics sought to cast doubt on the surface temperature record. Some said warming was an artifact of the urban heat island effect – which can raise temperatures in urban areas compared to rural locations – rather than increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. Others pointed to inconsistencies in correcting for gaps or biases in the data. A web-based movement formed, with a small army of volunteers documenting the locations and setup of official weather stations.

In response to numerous questions about the surface temperature record, a blue-ribbon panel was organized to find out once and for all if the Earth is really warming, and by how much. The panel was led by physicist Richard Muller of the University of California-Berkeley, who had expressed skepticism about mainstream climate science findings in the past, and some of the money for the panel came from politically conservative-leaning groups.

In the end, though, the Berkeley Earth Study, confirmed what most climate scientists already knew – the surface temperature data is correct in showing a pronounced warming trend. To be specific, the analysis found there has been 0.911 degrees Celsius of land warming (+/- 0.042 C) since the 1950s, or about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Twelve month moving average of surface temperature record over land. New Berkeley temperature record, which agrees with other temperature records, shown in black ( Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project)

As I wrote in October,

The Berkeley study analyzed data from more than 39,000 weather stations, more than five times the 7,280 stations found in the Global Historical Climatology Network Monthly data set (GHCN-M) that has served as the foundation of many other climate studies. The researchers employed new statistical methods that, the team says, more accurately take into account discontinuities in the data as well as data quality questions…

The Berkeley team’s analysis strongly refutes claims that the urban heat island effect causes a warm temperature bias in the surface data. The researchers also found that despite the skeptics’ assertions, readings from networks of temperature stations are not compromised by poor data quality from many of the individual stations.

3. “Climategate 2” falls flat

For the thousands of experts who study the climate, 2011 was something of a rebuilding year – a chance to regroup from the turbulence caused by the so-called “climategate” emails scandal. After multiple investigations cleared climate scientists of the most serious allegations of wrongdoing, more emails between a few top climate researchers were released, again purporting to show climate scientists doctoring scientific evidence and conspiring to keep out dissenting voices from peer-reviewed journals. This time, however, the damage to climate science’s street cred was minimal, as the media and the scientific community quickly found the emails to lack much evidence of anything scientifically significant.

The unauthorized release of the new batch of emails may have jump-started what seemed to be a dormant investigation into who obtained the emails and posted them on several websites, with actions by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Britain.

4. Congress Nixes National Climate Service

The 2010 midterm elections brought into power a surge of House lawmakers who either strongly questioned or flat out denied the existence of manmade climate change. As a result, the gap between climate scientists and politicians became wide enough to swallow what were once thought of as common sense, bipartisan ideas – such as creating a National Climate Service within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to complement the National Weather Service. Under the proposal, which was originally put forward by the Bush administration, the Climate Service would serve as a one-stop shop for climate info, from El Nino forecasts to projections of what the climate may be like 50 years from now.

The proposal called for realigning NOAA’s offices and functions to meet the increasing demand for climate information from farmers, businesses, investors and others who currently must navigate an alphabet soup of NOAA organizations to find the information they’re looking for, and to develop new climate analysis products and tools. NOAA requested no new money for the move, instead seeking congressional approval to restructure itself.

House Republicans blocked the move, and even sought to investigate whether NOAA was moving forward with the plan against its wishes. (For more background info, see this Post story by Brian Vastag).

The death of the Climate Service proposal was presaged by a vote last spring that put House members on record about whether they agree with the scientific evidence showing that the globe is warming, likely due in part to human activities.

The amendment, which was offered to a bill aimed at halting proposed U.S. EPA greenhouse gas regulations, stated: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate changes is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”

As I wrote at the time: “From a scientific perspective, the amendment’s language was rather benign. It was not a climate alarmist statement, nor did it overstep the science as expressed by highly-regarded research groups, not to mention the trove of peer reviewed scientific studies on climate change that seem to multiply by an order of magnitude each week.”

The fact that it failed by a vote of 184 to 240 (three Democrats were among those who rejected the amendment; one Republican supported it) signals the depth of the problem that scientists, environmental policy advocates, environmentalists, and others face in pushing for climate change action at the federal level. A majority of one chamber of the Congress just does not agree with the conclusions of most publishing climate scientists. This is a remarkable turn of events, considering that the last Congress narrowly passed a sweeping greenhouse gas regulation bill, which died in the Senate.

By  |  02:41 PM ET, 01/04/2012

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