A year of extremes: Severe snow storms, drought and floods ravaged the US in 2015
In the warmest year on record, Mother Nature wrought havoc across the country, with large swaths of the west coast ablaze during the summer and the north-east blanketed in snow for most of the winter
2015 has been the warmest year, globally, on record, with the lower 48 states of the US experiencing their balmiest autumn ever measured.
This kind of exceptional heat provided an appropriate setting for the Paris climate summit, where 196 nations agreed to curb greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the sort of dangerous climate change that contributes to floods, drought and damaging sea level rises.
But the past year has also seen a number of severe natural disasters, climate change-fueled or otherwise, that have battered the US. The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued 77 disaster declarations in 2015. Here are some of the disasters that tested Americans this year.
January snow storms
For New Yorkers, the snow in January was something of a near-miss – US National Weather Service warnings of a “potentially historic blizzard” proved erroneous. The subway was shut and driving was banned for what turned out to be just a light coating of snow.
But for those in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts, there was no such escape . Thousands of people lost power, flights were cancelled and sports events were called off as more than 2ft of snow settled in parts of the region. High winds and coastal flooding, with winds gusting to 80 mph in Massachusetts, pounded the Atlantic coast. For many cities in New England, winter storm Juno, as the blizzard was unofficially dubbed, was one of the heaviest snowstorms on record, with at least two people dying as an indirect result of the conditions.
Boston was smothered by snow, with February its snowiest month on record . In total, around 8ft of snow fell on the city, which ran out of places to dump cleared snow. This immense downfall prompted several people to throw themselves from their windows into huge snowdrifts – while videoing the experience, of course. Mayor Marty Walsh was enraged: “This isn’t Loon Mountain, this is the city of Boston!”
Tropical storm Bill
The drought in California would’ve been far from the minds of people in Texas and Oklahoma who experienced their wettest May on record, only for it to be followed by tropical storm Bill .
The tropical cyclone formed in the Gulf of Mexico on 16 June and swept northwards after making landfall in Texas in the following days. A huge amount of rain was dumped upon Texas and Oklahoma, peaking at 13.2 inches near El Campo, Texas. The rain brought flooding that killed two people, rockslides that closed highways and gusts of over 60 mph.
West coast wildfires
The state of Washington endured its largest ever wildfire season in 2015, with a pall of smoke hanging over Seattle acting as a constant reminder of the flames that burned through more than 1m acres of the state.
The fires were declared a federal agency on 21 August, with the US army deployed to help firefighters tackle the blazes. Three firefighters died in the course of their duties, while thousands of people were displaced. A cluster of blazes had destroyed more than 170 homes by 1 September. The fires followed a prolonged dry period in the state.
Further south, more than 6,000 fires had taken hold in California by November, burning through more than 300,000 acres. A state of emergency was declared due to the intense fires in Amador and Calaveras counties. Seven people and two firefighters died.
South Carolina floods
Disastrous flooding claimed 17 lives in October – 15 in South Carolina and two in North Carolina. Record rainfall, spurred by low pressure and hurricane Joaquin, dumped 20 inches of rain in some parts of South Carolina. This caused widespread flooding , causing $12bn in damage, a loss that governor Nikki Haley called “disturbing”. More than 160,000 homes were hit by the floods, with around 400,000 people required to boil their water to avoid an outbreak of disease.
2015 has been an unusually quiet year for tornadoes. As of 22 December, only 10 peoplehave died from tornadoes in the US. This is the fewest number of deaths in more than a century and well below the average of the past 10 years, which stands at 110 deaths per year, according to the National Weather Service .
The periodic El Niño climate phenomenon, which is currently in effect, is thought to subdue Atlantic hurricanes, which can then spawn tornadoes. One of the most destructive tornadoes in 2015 occurred at the River Oaks mobile home park in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, in March. The strongest ripped through Rochelle, Illinois, in April.
Drought is a very slow-moving disaster – California is in its fourth year of drought and there haven’t been any destroyed homes or swathes of deaths as a result. But the impacts are severe. In some parts of California’s Central Valley – an area that produces around 40% of the US’s fruits, nuts and vegetables – water-starved farmers have taken to drilling for water to such a degree that the land is sinking at a rate of 2 inches a month.
Far-reaching water consumption cuts have been placed on households but the state is still losing water – the University of California estimates that 4tn gallons of water have been lost from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins since the drought began in 2011.
The lack of water has been mirrored by a dearth of snow. In September, scientists estimated that the amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada was the lowest in more than 500 years.
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