March Madness – And We Aren’t Talking Basketball

NCAA March Madness officially runs from March 17 through April 7 this year, but that’s not what this blog is about! March is here, spring is just around the corner, and we are entering one of the wildest months for weather. As one of the “shoulder” or transition months between winter and spring, March is known for a smorgasbord of wild weather events. Extreme cold? Check. Extreme heat? Check. Blizzards? Check. Tornadoes? Check. Flooding? Check. Let’s take a look back at some of the most historical weather events that have occurred in the third month of the year.

The National Weather Service in Cheyenne’s parking Lot in the thick of a blizzard in March 2019. Photo by NWS MIC Jeff Garmon.

It’s HOT and it’s COLD 🎵

March is one of those transition months that people tend to generally think of as mild…but March temperatures can pack a punch! Brownsville, Texas, located at the southern tip of Texas, recorded it’s hottest temperature on record (for any month) on March 27, 1984 with a high temperature of 106 degrees Fahrenheit! But extreme heat in March isn’t restricted to the South. In fact, in March of 2012, one of the most anomalous heat waves in US history sweltered millions from the upper Midwest into the Northeast and even portions of Canada! Between March 13-22, 2012, temperatures soared over 40 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in many of the areas affected for days on end. That’s not to say it’s always hot though. Waterloo, Iowa once recorded its coldest temperature on record in March, with temperatures plunging to 34 degrees below zero on March 1, 1962! That record was tied in January 2009. Talk about wild temperature swings for one month (different years of course, but still impressive!)

A stubborn omega pattern that persisted for almost three weeks across the nation was the cause of the anomalous warmth in March 2012. Credit: NWS Milwaukee office.

Now Let’s Talk About Flooding…

Did you know that flooding is second leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States? That’s right, falling just behind heat as the number one weather-related killer, flooding is a serious issue. Of the 32 flooding catastrophes that were categorized as billion-dollar disasters (in a record beginning 1980-present), three occurred exclusively in March (although there were others that might have begun or ended in March, they were not exclusive to the third month of the year). Just last year, historic Midwest flooding inundated millions of acres of agriculture, numerous cities and towns, and caused widespread damage to roads, bridges, levees, and dams. Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan were most impacted, and this storm led to three deaths and 10.8 billion dollars in damages, making it one of the costliest U.S. inland flooding events on record.

Freeport, IL. March 17th, 2019 Courtesy: NWS Quad Cities, IA/IL; Stephenson County EMA

Furthermore, one of the deadliest flooding outbreaks to ever occur took place in Ohio in March 1913. Excessive rainfall  across the state killed 467 people and flooded 40,000 homes. In Cincinnati, the Ohio River rose 21 feet in 24 hours. In Dayton, swiftly flowing water up to 10 feet deep swept through downtown streets, killing 123 people. The water reached a depth of 18 feet in Dayton’s Railway Station, and 600 people were trapped there for three days before the water receded. The disaster caused 82.4 billion dollars in damages. Following the catastrophe, the Miami Conservancy District created flood control reservoirs in order to ensure tragedies like this never occurred again.

Dayton, Ohio’s Fifth Street submerged under 10 feet of water during the city’s most catastrophic flood on record in March 1913. Some 123 people perished in the city alone with another 300 fatalities elsewhere in the state. Image credit: Montgomery County Historical Society.

Snow, Snow, Go Away….

We would be remiss to talk about wintry precipitation in March and not mention the Great Blizzard of 1888! Take a look back at our blog from last year for a detailed recap of the storm with snowfall totals of up to 58” buried the region, winds that gusted to hurricane force, and temperatures that plunged into the single digits – eventually killing hundreds.

The statue of George Washington on Wall Street, covered in snow in the Great Blizzard of 1888. (Image credit: Library of Congress)

Then again…we’ve gotta mention the “Storm of the Century”….the storm that pummeled the eastern United States March 12 through March 14, 1993. From Cuba to Canada, there was widespread heavy snow, hurricane-force winds and severe thunderstorms. Kocin and Uccellini ranked the storm as a Category 5 for the Northeast, Southeast and Ohio Valley Regions. It covered one of the largest areas ever recorded in snow affecting over 100 million people and causing billions of dollars in damage. The greatest snow report came from Mt. Leconte in Smoky Mountain National Park, TN where 5 feet of snow buried the mountain. This was one of the worst snowstorms in Alabama history with over 18 inches falling in areas northeast of Birmingham. The storm is attributed with the largest interruption of air travel due to weather in the United States. Of course, not every snow storm will be a blizzard, and snow is quite common in many states in March. Here in New York, the Albany Airport averages 11 inches of snowfall each March.

Severe Season Starts Spinning Up

Tornadoes occur in any month somewhere in the United States, so there really is no national tornado “season” (like there is with hurricanes). Each region of the United States may experience an increased potential for tornadic activity at different times of the year. Tornadoes are most likely to occur at times of the year that correspond with increased solar heating and strong frontal systems. Regionally, the frequency of tornadoes in the United States is closely tied with the progression of the warm season when warm and cold air masses often clash. So, for example, Mississippi and Louisiana frequently have documented tornadoes from February to April. On the other hand, later spring tornadoes are more common in areas a bit more north, such as Kansas and Nebraska. The fewest tornadoes are documented during the winter months. Although rare, deadly winter outbreaks do occur. So, while tornadoes can occur in any month of the year, they are more common in April, May, and June due to the fact that the conditions are generally more probabilistic for tornadoes in more areas of the country at the same time.

The deadliest tornado outbreak in US history occurred on March 18, 1925, when a swarm of tornadoes, tore across the landscape through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. One tornado (although some scientists speculate if it might have been a series, it is difficult to determine with the lack of data available then) devastated many on a 219-mile path that stretched from eastern Missouri through Illinois into Indiana. This tornado was ranked as an F5 and was responsible for 695 of the 747 deaths that day.

Griffin, Indiana, was completely wiped out by the deadly Tri-State Tornado on March 18, 1925. The tornado killed 695, including 71 in and around Griffin. Image credit: U.S. National Archives.

Just last year, tornadoes ravaged parts of Alabama and Georgia on March 3, 2019. As the conditions deteriorated, dozens of tornadoes formed across eastern Alabama, the panhandle of Florida, and western Georgia causing widespread damage. While many of these tornadoes tore down trees and damaged homes, it was the one in Lee County, Alabama, between the towns of Beauregard and Smiths Station that caused the most damage.

Violent storms moved across Alabama, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle on March 3, 2019, as seen here by the GOES East satellite’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). Toward the middle of this loop, you can see the result of daytime heating intensifying the storms and lightning, which is color-coded in shades of white to yellow. The GLM, which is the first operational lightning mapper flown in geostationary orbit, is capable of detecting in-cloud, cloud-to-cloud, and cloud-to-ground lightning activity over the Americas and adjacent ocean regions. Movie by NOAA NESDIS.

The strong tornado touched down around 2 p.m. and left a trail of damage several miles long and a half a mile wide. It leveled buildings in its path, killing at least 23 people and injuring dozens in the town of Beauregard. It was the deadliest tornado since 2013, and the first EF-4 tornado in the United States in almost two years.

Looking back on these events is a great reminder that we should always stay prepared, and be vigilant about practicing our safety plans with our families. Disasters can strike at any time, and preparation and knowledge are our tools to prevent tragedies from occurring.

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