"In my four decades of tracking weather, I have never seen extreme weather like we had in 2011," says Dr. Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service. “In the past, we’ve had years of extreme flooding, hurricanes, or snow storms, but I can’t remember a year with record-breaking extremes of nearly every type of weather.”
From epic floods to historical drought, unrelenting summer heat to arctic blasts of frigid air, 2011 was a year of extremes.
Unfortunately, it was also a year of death and destruction: 552 people died in tornadoes, tying 2011 with 1936 as the deadliest year on record.
Looking ahead to this year, experts say 2011’s record-shattering tornado outbreaks does not guarantee the exact same set up will occur in 2012. However, they urge that it’s always advisable to be prepared for all types of dangerous weather.
“From a tornado perspective, I suspect 2012 will not be as severe as last year, as this winter’s La Niña is probably going to be somewhat weaker than last year’s.” says Dr. Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University.
La Niña is associated with cooler than normal water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean and influences weather throughout the world. NOAA’s Winter Weather Outlook, issued this past October, explains how La Niña may influence the general winter weather trends this winter. It makes note though that “This seasonal outlook does not project where and when snowstorms may hit or provide total seasonal snowfall accumulations. Snow forecasts are dependent upon winter storms, which are generally not predictable more than a week in advance."
Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research looks back on last year’s La Niña conditions, in comparison to what may be ahead for 2012:
“Last year’s stronger La Niña conditions and high sea temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic helped to set up the extra supercell thunderstorms and tornado outbreaks of the spring... To have many strong tornadoes requires the right balance: If the storm track is too far north, the link to the Gulf is lost. If it is too far south, the link to wind shear is diminished. Last year was just right [for tornadoes to develop]. Odds of that happening again this year are slim -- but not impossible. A more typical season with some, but fewer, tornadoes than last year is currently indicated."
“We certainly hope 2012 is not nearly as destructive as this year, but we always need to be prepared for nature’s worst.” Hays says. “The tornado outbreaks in April and May that tore through the central U.S. and South are a clear reminder of our vulnerability.”
The wrath of Mother Nature is also often felt during hurricane season. During the 2011 season, there were 19 named tropical storms in the Atlantic, making it the third most active season since record-keeping began in 1851.
Klotzbach and his team at Colorado State puts out a hurricane forecast every year. He compares this upcoming season to last year’s: “While this year’s past hurricane season was reasonably active in the Atlantic, there is considerable uncertainty in what likely will occur next summer, given that we may have a transition to El Niño. It has been several years since we had an El Niño event. The last El Niño was in 2009.”
Colorado State will issue their official hurricane outlooks for the 2012 season in April. NOAA’s outlook will come out in May.
Before then, there are storm preparation safety steps you can take in advance. It’s a good idea to plan in accordance with where you live: “People need to familiarize themselves with the severe weather that tends to proliferate in their region,” Klotzbach says. “ For example, people in Florida need to have a plan in place prior to the start of hurricane season... Extreme weather will always be with us.”
Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider’s book "Extreme Weather" is available now on her website. Look for it in bookstores across the country, starting January 31.