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5 Record-Breaking Weather Facts of 2016

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.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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