After a brief period of heavy rain in drought-choked California, wildflowers bloomed near Caliente on March 4, 2016. Image Credit: David McNew/Getty Images
Thank goodness 2016 is almost over. It’s hard to come across one person who enjoyed much of what the year threw at us—and that’s true of its weather, too. Whether you were baked by extreme heat or drenched by never-ending rains, 2016 was an active, record-breaking year that left few parts of the U.S. untouched by tumult. Here’s a quick look back at how the weather treated us in 2016.
1. 2016 WAS LIKELY THE WARMEST YEAR EVER RECORDED.
The weather is more than what you see in your backyard. We only ever personally experience a small fraction of the weather events that unfold every day around the world, but we’re all impacted by large-scale trends like the record-setting warmth of 2016.
2016 will very likely go down as the warmest year ever recorded, the third such year in a row, topping 2015 as the previous holder of this dubious distinction. NOAA’s year-to-date temperature data for the world through the end of November has 2016 coming in 0.94°C warmer than normal, which almost guarantees that 2016 will come in slightly warmer than 2015’s astounding year-end anomaly of 0.89°C.
Some of this year’s record warmth is attributable to El Niño, the anomalous warming of the ocean water near the equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean, but that doesn’t explain all of it. This year continued an undeniable trend that shows that our atmosphere is warming at a fairly steady pace; in fact, including this year, six of the ten warmest years recorded since 1880 have occurred since 2010. If the warming trend continues in the years ahead, it will likely result in adverse situations like more intense and prolonged droughts in some areas, more frequent flooding due to rising sea levels and heavier rainfall in others, and longer, deadlier heat waves.
2. WE HAVEN’T SEEN MANY RECORD LOWS AS A RESULT.
Arctic air descending over the United States on December 17, 2016. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau
The recent cold snap that froze much of the U.S. in the middle of December felt exceptionally cold—with low temperatures dipping well below zero across many states—but it’s easy to forget that it used to get much colder than that on a pretty regular basis. As a result, this bone-chilling cold didn’t set as many record lows as one would think. That’s not an uncommon situation these days.
Climate Central recently took a look at the ratio of daily record lows to daily record highs and found that the latter significantly outnumbers the former. For every record low we’ve seen in the United States in 2016, there have been at least six record highs. Climate Central notes that the number of record highs and lows should equal out over time in a “stable climate,” but we’re in anything but a stable climate these days.
3. THE U.S. SUFFERED FROM HISTORIC FLOODS.
On the precipitation side of things, extreme flooding events were by far the largest cause of weather disasters this year in the United States, and there were two particularly devastating flooding events in 2016. The first unfolded across Louisiana in August, the result of a storm system that stalled out over the eastern part of the state and dumped up to 30 inches of rain over a short period of time. The extreme rain led to flooding that caused more than $8.7 billion in damages, killed more than a dozen people, and forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes.
The other flooding disaster was caused by Hurricane Matthew, a powerful storm that grazed the Florida and Georgia coasts before coming ashore in the Carolinas at the beginning of October. The hurricane merged with a frontal system over North Carolina and focused one to two feet of intense rainfall on the eastern part of the state. Much as we saw in Louisiana, the floods claimed thousands of homes and resulted in multiple fatalities.
4. WHERE IT DIDN’T RAIN, IT REALLY DIDN’T RAIN.
The U.S. Drought Monitor as of December 13, 2016. Image credit: USDM
The split between feast and famine was stark this year. While the West Coast’s drought slowly got a bit better, much of the eastern parts of the United States slipped into a disruptive, and at times, destructive drought. The drought is particularly bad in interior parts of the southeast, where states like Georgia and Alabama have slipped into their worst drought in a decade. The dry earth has led to devastating wildfires that have claimed thousands of homes and killed numerous people. The extreme dryness will likely last through a significant portion of 2017, and affected areas may not see any noticeable relief until next summer’s hurricane season.
5. TORNADO ACTIVITY AND TORNADO DEATHS ARE NEAR RECORD LOWS.
Still, not all of the wacky weather we’ve seen in 2016 was bad. The Storm Prediction Center’s data through the end of December shows that 2016 is very close to the fewest number of tornadoes recorded in one year since 1950. The United States typically sees around a thousand confirmed tornadoes every year, but that activity has been relatively minimal for the past couple of years. Adjusted for inflation—removing false reports and duplicate reports for the same tornado—2016 has seen 897 reported tornadoes through December 19, 2016. That’s significantly lower than the previous low-point of 944.
Tornadoes can grow into violent monsters that destroy entire towns, but these beastly formations are surprisingly fragile. Tornado formation requires precise amounts of wind shear, instability, and moisture—too much or too little of one ingredient will prevent a storm from producing tornadoes. This natural limitation is why only a tiny fraction of thunderstorms ever spawn tornadoes.
The near-record lack of tornadoes so far this year has had the added benefit of resulting in one of the lowest tornado death tolls on record. On average, about 98 people die every year as a direct result of injuries sustained in tornadoes [PDF]. Only 17 people have died as a result of tornadoes so far in 2016, the second-lowest number on record since 1940. Only 1986 saw a lower tornado death toll, when just 15 people were killed.