Freezes, fires and tornadoes caused significant regional economic harm in Jan.-March
By Bob Berwyn
Tornadoes, wildfires, and blizzards during the second-warmest winter on record for the U.S. killed 37 people and caused an estimated $5.8 billion dollars in damage, according to the latest monthly update from federal climate trackers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It was the first time there were five billion-dollar extreme weather events during the January to March period, the National Centers for Environmental Information said in the state of the climate report released Thursday. The March 6-8 tornado outbreak in the Midwest was the costliest, at $1.5 billion. The damage from California rainstorms Feb. 8-22 amounted to $1 billion, the report says.
Waves of extreme weather extended across the country, manifesting in record warmth in Colorado and New Mexico and a crop-killing freeze in mid-March across a big swath of the Southeast. NOAA climate researchers say March freezes aren’t all that unusual, but the fact that record-warm temps ahead of the cold snap caused many plants to bloom several weeks early intensified the damage.
For 2017 to date, NOAA’s climate extremes index, which ranks months on the number of events that fall into the top or bottom 10 percent of the record, was at an all-time high.
The average March temperature across the lower 48 states was 4.7 degrees above the 20th century average, which made it the ninth-warmest March on record. The Southern Rockies was the warmest region. Colorado was the hotspot of the nation, at 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average during March— not unexpected, because global warming for decades has been heating high-elevation mountain areas more than the global average.
In March, record and near-record warmth spanned 13 states in the West and Great Plains, and a huge swath of record-warm readings extended across the southern tier of states from eastern Arizona all the way to South Carolina.
For the year-to-date, the average temperature across the contiguous 48 states was 5.1 degrees Fahrenheit above average, making it the second-warmest January–March on record, behind 2012. That year a flash drought started during a very warm spring in the Rockies and subsequently spread eastward, culminating in extensive heatwaves that killed 12 people and wildfires that burned across 12.2 million acres, at the time the third most damaging wildfire season on record.
Federal climate scientists this week also released the monthly update for ice conditions around the Poles, and for the third straight year, Arctic sea ice extent peaked extremely early and at the lowest level recorded since 1979 when accurate satellite measurements started.
The Arctic ice cap reaches its maximum each year in March and this year’s extent was 471,000 square miles below the 1981 to 2010 average, and 37,000 square miles below the record set just last year.
The Arctic stayed remarkably warm from October 2016 through February 2017, at 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit above average over the entire Arctic Ocean, and more than 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average across the northern Chukchi and Barents Seas. The warmth was punctuated by a series of widely reported extreme heatwaves that slowed sea ice formation all winter.
Around Antarctica, sea ice dwindled to an all-time record low on March 3, near the end of the Austral summer, with only a few ragged areas of ice covering about 815,000 square miles around the vast frozen continent. As recently as 2015, Antarctic sea ice was set record high daily extents, and in September 2014 reached a record high winter maximum. This year the ice was at a record low extent nearly all summer long.
The world’s oceans, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, also saw widespread areas of record and near-record temperatures, leading to renewed coral reef bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and a record-warm hotspot off the coast of South America that fueled deadly rainstorms and mudslides in Peru and Colombia.
The European Climate Change Service said this week that last month was the second-warmest March on record for Earth, just slightly cooler than last year. Global warmth persisted throughout this winter despite the end of the Pacific El Niño and a shift to the cooler La Niña phase, which on average can the global temperature by about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The Arctic was the region where temperatures were the most above normal.