6 Surprising State Weather Records

Thomas Cooper/Getty Images
Thomas Cooper/Getty Images

Something that truly unites all Americans is the belief that their home town lays claim to some of the worst weather in the country. Residents of nearly every state often repeat the joke that if you don't like the weather there, just wait five minutes and it'll change. Most of our exciting weather is rather ordinary, if not short-lived, but some events really are so extreme that they wind up in the record books. Here are some states where the weather was anything but ordinary.

1. MAINE: A RECORD NUMBER OF TORNADOES

Maine is pretty close to the bottom of the list when you think of states that are prone to tornadoes. Just like every other state, though, Maine's rugged landscape isn't immune to torrents that can produce wicked damage. A powerful outbreak of thunderstorms on July 5, 2017, produced five separate tornadoes across Maine, setting a new record for the most tornadoes to ever touch down in one day in this northeastern state.

While this was a relatively bad day in Maine, it pales in comparison to the most tornadoes to ever touch down in one day. More than 200 tornadoes touched down on April 27, 2011, mainly across Mississippi and Alabama, in what became one of the worst tornado outbreaks in recorded history.

2. NEW HAMPSHIRE: THE TOP WINDS ON A MOUNTAINTOP

New Hampshire's Mount Washington is famous for the extreme weather that tests the resolve of hardy scientists who work at its peak. The observatory at the top of Mount Washington has seen some of the worst weather imaginable, including the strongest wind gust ever directly recorded in the United States. (This was the global record as well until 1996, when a wind gust hit 253 mph in Australia during Typhoon Olivia.)

Scientists measured a 231 mph wind gust on the afternoon of April 12, 1934, as a storm system roared its way across New England. The observatory's intense winds are attributable to the fact that it lies more than 6000 feet above sea level, exposing it to the powerful atmospheric winds that make intense storm systems possible.

3. TEXAS: THE RAINIEST DAY EVER

Hurricanes are a fearsome weather catastrophe, but weaker tropical cyclones—tropical depressions and tropical storms—can cause just as much damage through the sheer amount of water they can bring ashore. No one understands this more than the residents of the small town of Alvin, Texas, which set the record for the most rain ever recorded in a 24-hour period. A weather observer in Alvin measured 42 inches of rain between the mornings of July 25 and July 26, 1979, as Tropical Storm Claudette swirled ashore. Records show that there may have been even more rainfall in Alvin as the rain gauge began overflowing at one point.

4. ALABAMA: THE WETTEST MAJOR CITY

The Pacific Northwest has a deserved reputation when it comes to constant rainfall. Seattle, Washington, sees rain on more than 150 days each year, but when it does rain there, the precipitation is on the lighter side; it's often an annoying drizzle.

But if you want real rainfall in a cityscape, head down to Mobile, Alabama, which is the rainiest major city in the contiguous United States in terms of yearly average rainfall. This city on the northern Gulf Coast typically sees more than five feet of rain every year. There are plenty of places that see more rain annually; Maple Valley, Washington, for instance, gets more than seven feet of rain a year. On the other hand, only 22,000 people live there. For the biggest rainy impact on the largest number of people, Mobile—home to just under 200,000—takes the cake.

5. MISSOURI: THE COSTLIEST HAILSTORM IN HISTORY

A pang of fear strikes through the stomachs of every car- and homeowner when a barrage of hail begins falling from the sky. It doesn't take much hail to cause a lot of damage, and the damage gets exponentially worse as the hailstones tick up in size. Parts of central Missouri and Illinois saw the costliest hailstorm ever recorded [PDF] back in April 2001, when a supercell thunderstorm dropped hail up to the size of baseballs over a path more than 240 miles long.

The hail damaged hundreds of thousands of buildings, tens of thousands of vehicles, and even caused substantial damage to more than two dozen airplanes at the airport in St. Louis. Once the skies cleared and residents tallied the damage, they found that the storm caused more than $1.5 billion in insured losses.

6. COLORADO: THE BIGGEST ONE-DAY SNOWFALL ON RECORD

If you love the cold and just can't get enough snow in the winter, there are few places you want to be more than the Rocky Mountains. The bitter cold, constant stream of storms, and jagged terrain create the perfect conditions for gobs of snow to fall all at once. A weather reporting station at Silver Lake, Colorado, nestled in the mountains west of Boulder, caught the jackpot one day nearly a hundred years ago. The town recorded more than six feet of snow—75.8 inches, to be precise—in the 24-hour period between April 14 and April 15, 1921. That's some deep powder.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Is the Heat Index Real?

MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images
MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images

Complaining about the humidity is a mainstay of small talk. “It’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity” is a common refrain around the South, just as “it’s a dry heat” is a go-to line in the desert Southwest. The clichés aren’t wrong on this one—a hot and humid day can have a dramatic effect on both your comfort and your health. We can measure this very real impact on your body using the heat index. 

The heat index is the temperature it feels like to your body when you factor in both the actual air temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. If the heat index is 103°F, that means that the combination of heat and humidity has a similar physical impact on your body as it would if the actual air temperature were 103°F. Even though it’s tempting to think of the heat index as an exaggerated temperature that only exists to make the heat sound worse than it really is, scientists came up with the measurements after decades of medical and meteorological research devoted to studying the impact of heat and humidity on the human body. It’s the real deal.

The dew point is an important component of the heat index. The dew point is the temperature at which the air would reach 100 percent relative humidity, or become fully saturated with moisture like on a foggy morning. Since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warmer air, lower dew points reflect lower moisture levels and higher dew points indicate higher moisture levels. Dew points below 60°F are comfortable, while readings reaching 70°F and even 80°F range from muggy to downright oppressive.

Measuring humidity on a hot day is important because moisture is how your body naturally cools itself off. Your sweat cools the surface of your skin through a process known as evaporative cooling. If the air is packed with moisture, it takes longer for your sweat to evaporate than it would in more normal conditions, preventing you from cooling off efficiently. The inability to lower your body temperature when it’s hot can quickly lead to medical emergencies like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is why the heat index is such an important measurement to pay attention to during the summer months.

The heat index is generally considered “dangerous” once the value climbs above 105°F, and your risk of falling ill increases the higher the heat index climbs.

Dry climates can have the opposite effect on your body, with the distinct lack of moisture in the air making it feel cooler to your body than it really is. Summers get oppressively hot in places like Arizona and Iraq, but the heat doesn’t affect residents as severely because the air is extremely dry. Dew points in desert regions can hover at or below 32°F even when the air temperature is well above 100°F, which is about as dry as it can get in the natural world.  

In 2016, a city in Kuwait measured the all-time highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in the eastern hemisphere, where temperatures climbed to a sweltering 129°F during the day on July 21, 2016. The dew point there at the same time was nearly 100 degrees cooler, leading to a heat index of just 110°F, much lower than the actual air temperature. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Extreme heat combined with extreme aridity can make your sweat evaporate too efficiently, quickly dehydrating you and potentially leading to medical emergencies similar to those you would experience in a much more humid region of the world. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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