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5 Record-Breaking Extreme Weather Events in the U.S.

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Hulton Archive / Staff

As a rule, bringing weather up in conversation is considered boring. Most of us in the U.S. infrequently experience truly extreme weather: Even when suffering through intense storms, heat waves, or bitter cold, our discomfort isn’t usually offset by bragging rights. That’s because most weather records are made in far-off locations. But there are a few truly astonishing exceptions where records were set closer to home.  

1. MARYLAND: THE MOST RAIN EVER RECORDED IN ONE MINUTE

Image credit: Scott Patterson via Flickr// CC BY-NC 2.0

 
Just about every summer features a thunderstorm with what seems like the heaviest rain you’ve ever seen. Dark skies give way to a downpour that falls so fast that it’s hard to see more than a few feet down the road. But not even the heaviest rain you’ve ever seen can come close to the inundation in Unionville, Maryland, on July 4, 1956.

On that day, a gauge in this western Maryland town recorded 1.23 inches of rain in just one minute. That kind of sudden deluge is almost unimaginable, but scientists studied the gauge and found it to be in fine working order between 3:23 p.m. and 3:24 p.m. on that hot, humid afternoon. It’s even more impressive that the thunderstorm that produced this record rainfall wasn’t part of a tropical storm or hurricane—it appears to have been an everyday summer storm.

2. KANSAS: THE FARTHEST TORNADO-TOSSED DEBRIS

A destructive tornado can tear apart a home in an instant. When extreme winds rip apart a building, the debris scatters, sometimes for miles, usually never to be found by its original owner again. Every once in a while, though, far-flung wreckage can be traced back to where it originated.

Such was the case in Stockton, Kansas, on April 11, 1991, after an F3 tornado tore through the town, damaging and destroying several homes in the rural community. After the storm passed through, someone found a personal check from Stockton all the way in Winnetoon, Nebraska—an astounding 223 miles away.

Lightweight debris—things like leaves, insulation, and personal checks—frequently get lofted high enough into a thunderstorm that they get caught in strong upper-level winds, traveling dozens (if not hundreds) of miles downwind. But we usually don’t see tornado debris travel quite that far—nor are we usually able to pinpoint its origin with such ease.

3. OKLAHOMA: THE LONGEST LIGHTNING BOLT

The World Meteorological Organization recently certified two shocking lightning records for the history books: the longest lightning bolt and longest duration lightning bolt ever recorded. There are hundreds of recording stations all over the globe to measure where lightning strikes, and meteorologists can use the data from these stations to tell how long the lightning flash lasted and how long the bolt itself stretched.

Scientists used data from seven such recording stations to find that a 199.5-mile-long lightning bolt lit up the sky over Oklahoma on June 20, 2007, stretching from east to west across more than half of the large, flat state. That’s officially the longest lightning bolt ever recorded—a brand-new record that’s waiting to be broken by another enterprising storm in the future.

A few years later, the longest-duration lightning bolt ever recorded flickered in the sky over southern France on August 30, 2012. Most lightning only lasts for a fraction of a second, but this particular flash stretched nearly 100 miles across the southern Alps near Marseille, lasting for an astonishing 7.74 seconds.

4. SOUTH DAKOTA (#1): THE FASTEST COLD SNAP

How appropriate: The fastest temperature drop ever officially recorded plummeted the mercury in Rapid City, South Dakota on January 10, 1911. Life on the Plains can be rough during the winter. The flat land allows warm air to surge from the south one day but frigid air to dip from the north the next, resulting in wild temperature swings that happen frequently during the cooler months of the year.

That’s what happened in 1911. Dr. Walter Lyons records in The Handy Weather Answer Book that the official weather station in Rapid City measured a temperature of 55°F at 7:00 a.m. on January 10, just minutes before an intense cold front plowed through the tiny town. Fifteen minutes later, the temperature fell to just 8°F—representing a historic 47°F drop in the outside air temperature in the same time it takes to boil a pot of pasta. More than 30 years later, in 1943, the nearby town of Spearfish would set a related record, for fastest temperature increase: 49°F in just two minutes.

5. SOUTH DAKOTA (#2): THE BIGGEST HAILSTONE

The record-breaking hailstone that fell in Vivian, South Dakota. Image credit: National Weather Service

 
Another winner for the Mount Rushmore State. Any chunk of ice hurtling toward the ground is too large when you’re worried about your car, home, or crops. But some thunderstorms are able to grow so strong they create hailstones larger than baseballs—and a handful of thunderstorms produce chunks of ice large enough to leave craters in the ground.

The largest hailstone ever recorded fell in Vivian, South Dakota, on the afternoon of July 23, 2010. The hailstone was nearly the size of a volleyball, measuring 8 inches in diameter and weighing almost 2 pounds. Meteorologists estimate that updraft winds—the unstable air shooting up into the storm—had to have blown 160–180 mph to sustain the weight of such a massive hailstone.

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Bess Lovejoy
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Weird
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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Space
The Northern Lights Won’t Be This Bright Again Until 2025
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iStock

If you’ve ever camped out to see the northern lights, you know they can be elusive. They’re only visible on dark, clear nights up north when a solar flare or solar wind shoots particles toward Earth. Seeing the phenomenon live takes a bit of luck, but if spectators wish to boost their chances, now's the time. As Thrillist reports, the aurora borealis is at its peak—and won’t be this bright again until 2025.

The colorful lights that seem to bend in the sky over the Arctic Circle are the product of electrons from the Sun colliding with gases in the planet’s atmosphere. The lights are controlled by the Sun, and because solar activity goes through 11-year cycles, so does the aurora borealis.

The Sun is currently at the end of the maximum stage of its cycle. The increased solar activity makes for northern lights that are more frequent and visible farther south. As the Sun starts to move into its minimum phase of activity, the light show will be harder to see from parts of the world to the south of northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. The next part of the cycle will last about eight years, with solar activity starting to heat up again around 2025.

On rare occasions, the northern lights can be seen from some of the lower 48 states, like Maine, Michigan, and Washington. But to make sure you catch them in peak season, U.S. residents may have to travel north. Here are a few inexpensive trips you can take to get an eyeful of the spectacle.

[h/t Thrillist]

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