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Hulton Archive / Staff
Hulton Archive / Staff

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

Hulton Archive / Staff
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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15 Surprising Facts About Winter Weather
Jason English
Jason English

Whether you enjoy bundling up in your coziest gear or are already counting down the days until spring, here are 15 facts about what’s happening outdoors this time of year.

1. IT SOMETIMES SNOWS WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT.

You wouldn’t be shocked to see snow on the ground of Siberia or Minnesota when traveling to those places during the winter months. But northern areas don’t have a monopoly on snowfall—the white stuff has been known to touch down everywhere from the Sahara Desert to Hawaii. Even the driest place on Earth isn’t immune. In 2011, the Atacama Desert in Chile received nearly 32 inches of snow thanks to a rare cold front from Antarctica.

2. SNOWFLAKES COME IN ALL SIZES.

The average snowflake ranges from a size slightly smaller than a penny to the width of a human hair. But according to some unverified sources they can grow much larger. Witnesses of a snowstorm in Fort Keogh, Montana in 1887 claimed to see milk-pan sized crystals fall from the sky. If true that would make them the largest snowflakes ever spotted, at around 15 inches wide.

3. A LITTLE WATER CAN ADD UP TO A LOT OF SNOW.

The air doesn’t need to be super moist to produce impressive amounts of snow. Unlike plain rainfall, a bank of fluffy snow contains lots of air that adds to its bulk. That’s why what would have been an inch of rain in the summer equals about 10 inches of snow in the colder months.

4. YOU CAN HEAR THUNDERSNOW WHEN THE CONDITIONS ARE RIGHT.

If you’ve ever heard the unmistakable rumble of thunder in the middle of a snowstorm, that’s not your ears playing tricks on you. It’s likely thundersnow, a rare winter weather phenomenon that’s most common near lakes. When relatively warm columns of air rise from the ground and form turbulent storm clouds in the sky in the winter, there’s potential for thundersnow. A few more factors are still necessary for it to occur, namely air that’s warmer than the cloud cover above it and wind that pushes the warm air upwards. Even then it’s entirely possible to miss thundersnow when it happens right over your head: Lightning is harder to see in the winter and the snow sometimes dampens the thunderous sound.

5. SNOW FALLS AT 1 TO 6 FEET PER SECOND.

At least in the case of snowflakes with broad structures, which act as parachutes. Snow that falls in the form of pellet-like graupel travels to Earth at a much faster rate.

6. IT DOESN’T TAKE LONG FOR THE TEMPERATURE TO DROP.

Don’t take mild conditions in the middle of January as an excuse to leave home without a jacket. Rapid City, South Dakota’s weather records from January 10, 1911, show just how fast temperatures can plummet. The day started out at a pleasant 55°F, then over the course of 15 minutes a wicked cold front brought the temperature down to 8 degrees. That day still holds the record for quickest cold snap in history.

7. THE EARTH IS CLOSEST TO THE SUN DURING THE WINTER.

Every January (the start of the winter season in the northern hemisphere) the Earth reaches the point in its orbit that’s nearest to the Sun. Despite some common misconceptions, the seasonal drop in temperature has nothing to do with the distance of our planet to the Sun. It instead has everything to do with which direction the Earth’s axis is tilting, which is why the two hemispheres experience winter at different times of the year.

8. MORE THAN 22 MILLION TONS OF SALT ARE USED ON U.S. ROADS EACH WINTER.

That comes out to about 137 pounds of salt per person.

9. THE SNOWIEST CITY ON EARTH IS IN JAPAN.

Aomori City in northern Japan receives more snowfall than any major city on the planet. Each year citizens are pummeled with 312 inches, or about 26 feet, of snow on average.

10. SOMETIMES SNOWBALLS FORM THEMSELVES.

Something strange happened earlier this year in northwest Siberia: Mysterious, giant snowballs began washing up on a beach along the Gulf of Ob. It turns out the ice orbs were formed naturally by the rolling motions of wind and water. With some spheres reaching nearly 3 feet in width, you wouldn’t want to use this frozen ammunition in a snowball fight.

11. WIND CHILL IS CALCULATED USING A PRECISE FORMULA.

When the weatherman reports a “real feel” temperature of -10 degrees outside, it may sound like he’s coming up with that number on the spot. But wind chill is actually calculated using a complicated equation devised by meteorologists. For math nerds who’d like to test it at home, the formula reads: Wind Chill = 35.74 + 0.6215T – 35.75(V^0.16) + 0.4275T(V^0.16).

12. CITIES ARE FORCED TO DISPOSE OF SNOW IN CREATIVE WAYS.

When snow piles up too high for cities to manage, it’s usually hauled away to parking lots or other wide-open spaces where it can sit until the weather warms up. During particularly snowy seasons, cities are sometimes forced to dump snow in the ocean, only to be met with criticism from environmental activists. Some cities employ snow melters that use hot water to melt 30 to 50 tons of snow an hour. This method is quick but costly—a single machine can cost $200,000 and burn 60 gallons of fuel in an hour of use.

13. WET SNOW IS BEST FOR SNOWMAN-BUILDING, ACCORDING TO SCIENCE.

Physics confirms what you’ve likely known since childhood: Snow on the wet or moist side is best for building your own backyard Frosty. One scientist pegs the perfect snow-to-water ratio at 5:1.

14. SNOWFLAKES AREN’T ALWAYS UNIQUE.

Snow crystals usually form unique patterns, but there’s at least one instance of identical snowflakes in the record books. In 1988, two snowflakes collected from a Wisconsin storm were confirmed to be twins at an atmospheric research center in Colorado.

15. THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FREEZING RAIN AND SLEET

Freezing rain and sleet can both have scary effects on driving conditions, but their formations differ in some key ways. Both types of precipitation occur when rain formed in warm air in the sky passes through a layer of cold air near the ground. Thicker layers of cold air create sleet, a slushy form of water that’s semi-frozen by the time it reaches the Earth. Thinner layers don’t give rain enough time to freeze until it hits the surface of the ground—it then forms a thin coat of ice wherever it lands.

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It Just Snowed In the Sahara for the Second Time In Less Than a Month
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The town of Aïn Séfra, Algeria might need to find a new nickname. Though it’s often referred to as “The Gateway to the Sahara,” the 137-year-old province in northwest Algeria is currently digging out from a rare—and unexpected—snowstorm that left the desert town covered in several inches of snow and battling sub-zero temperatures.

While the Daily Mail reported that “locals took to the nearby sand dunes to enjoy the unusual weather,” the strangest part of the story is that this is Aïn Séfra’s second snowfall in less than a month. On Sunday, January 7, a freak blizzard left parts of the Sahara blanketed in as much as 16 inches of snow.

This most recent storm marked the region’s fourth snowfall in nearly 40 years; in addition to January's dose of the white stuff, the area has been hit with other surprise wintry events in February 1979 and December 2016.

But North Africa isn’t the only area that’s seeing record-breaking weather events. On Saturday, February 3, 17 inches of snow fell on Moscow within 24 hours in what the country has dubbed “the snowfall of the century.” In mid-January, Oymyakon, Russia—a rural village in the Yakutia region, which is already well known as one of the coldest inhabited areas of the world—saw temperatures drop to -88.6°F, making it chilly enough to both bust thermometers and freeze people’s eyelashes. And you thought dealing with single-digit temperatures was tough!

[h/t: Daily Mail]

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