Wednesday, February 1, 2017

1913's Wild Weather

The unprecedented Great Easter Flood was only the beginning of a year of meteorological extremes. July 1913 brought the hottest recorded temperature on Earth—still the record—in Death Valley, and November a bizarre “white hurricane” in the Great Lakes. And, oh yes, a nationwide drought. Why?

1913 was a year of total weather whiplash. 

After monumental winter and early spring storm systems that brought unusually early tornadoes that still—over a century later—count as Nebraska’s deadliest, plus sustained intense rainfall across the Midwest that caused floods that still (2017) hold records across Ohio and Indiana, it was almost as if a meteorological faucet suddenly shut off.
In 1913, Death Valley reached the highest temperature on Earth. (This happened six months after Death Valley set its own record low temperature in January 1913. And 1913 was also Death Valley’s wettest calendar year on record for 102 years.) Credit: Trudy E. Bell

From April through August, rainfall over Indiana—so recently hammered by the worst flood in its history—virtually dried up in a sustained heat wave and drought. From June 15 through July 5, temperatures topped 90 degrees nearly every day, and soared above 100 on some. Parts of the state suffered rainfall up to 10 inches below normal, aggravated by hot winds, which damaged a wide variety of crops and diminished water supplies

Nor was Indiana alone: neighboring Illinois, Kentucky also sweltered. In Kansas and parts of neighboring states, the corn crop failed. In Oklahoma and parts of Texas, the cotton crop suffered. Over much of the country, fruits, nuts, and vegetables withered. Indeed, the 1913 heat wave and drought was felt from New England to the Rocky Mountains in a “period of about 12 weeks of almost continuous excess of heat,” according to Monthly Weather Review of the National Weather Service, which devoted more than 24 pages of its September 1913 issue to discussing the drought. The heat was accompanied by almost desert-like weather “with almost continuous sunshine, frequent hot winds, and deficient humidity” that “combined to produce one of the most disastrous seasons” on record.

In Death Valley, in the midst of its own 1913 summer heat wave that had temperatures bouncing off 125 and 130 degrees at Furnace Creek (then called Greenland Ranch), that the mercury soared to 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10. First cited as a high-temperature record for California, it later became recognized as the “highest authentic natural-air temperature that…had ever been recorded anywhere under approved conditions of equipment and exposure”—meaning anywhere in the world. (In 1922, it was claimed to be surpassed on September 13 by a temperature of 136 degrees in Azizia, Tripoli—now El Azizia, Libya—but in 2012 after nine decades of debate, an official investigation by the World Meteorological Organization overturned that claim due to instrumental and observer errors.) In short, the hottest temperature on the planet was recorded in Death Valley in summer 1913.

But wait, there’s more. On January 8, 1913, Death Valley also reached its own low-temperature record—9 degrees Fahrenheit. That may not sound like much to people in the Midwest and Northeast, but “the great freeze” (as it came to be called) devastated the citrus industry in southern California  and directly led to the U.S. Weather Bureau’s establishing of the fruit frost forecast program. And oh, yes, 1913 in Death Valley also set the record for being the wettest calendar year (4.54 inches from January through December, more than double the usual average annual rainfall of 1.94 inches)—a record sustained for more than a century until broken by the “superbloom” year of 2005 (4.73 inches).

The ‘white hurricane’
November 7–11, 1913, not even six months after the Great Easter deadly tornadoes and flood, another tragic weather catastrophe struck the Midwest: the nation’s greatest inland marine disaster. Sustained winds of 50 to 70 mph reached hurricane-force with gusts up to 90 mph whipped up waves as high as 35 feet on the Great Lakes, sinking at least 12 ships and killing at least 250. Cleveland was buried under more than 17 inches of snow dropped in less than 24 hours.

A centennial computational simulation revealed that (echoing the Great Easter storm system) disaster came as a devastating one-two punch: a “pre-storm” of Nov. 7–8 followed by the actual “white hurricane” to deliver what is called a “meteorological bomb.”
Weather around the world is always violent and setting records here and there. But the confluence of so many exceptional and powerful events in 1913 (and 1912) nonplused mariners and meteorologists alike at the time, along with others having trained astute weather eyes. “Atmospheric conditions have been deranged the world over for the last two years, and the oldest mariners say that nothing like it has been known within their memory,” reported one newspaper account. “Weather bureau officials say the last week or ten days” [meaning the time leading up to the Great Easter tornadoes and floods] “has presented the most extraordinary situation in regard to the weather that has existed since the creation of the bureau,” reported another.

When in March 2006 I was driving back from a conference in Omaha and discussing this by cellphone with the late historian of astronomy Craig B. Waff, he asked: “Do you think something like a volcano could have been a cause? I’ll google on 1912 and volcano. Bingo!” And he started reading aloud about Novarupta, the biggest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, on the Katmai peninsula in Alaska. 

Six months later, I was able to write an article (published October 3 in Science@NASA) about the possible effect that this high-latitude volcanic eruption might have had on weakening the 1913 monsoons in India, based on computational simulations at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In 2006, when I was interviewing one of the authors (Alan Robock of Rutgers), I asked about the possibility of Novarupta’s also having some influence on the Great Easter storm system, but he had not looked into U.S. effects. 

Quite independently, Air Force meteorologist Evan Kuchera—in his own reconstruction of the 1913 Nebraska tornadoes (see “To Build a Tornado”)—had also run across similar articles quoting the amazement of meteorologists at 1913 weather. “I take such comments very seriously, because meteorologists as a group are not given to hyperbole,” Kuchera said. 
My speculative question to the Omaha-Offutt chapter of the American Meteorological Society in a September 2014 presentation on the meteorology of the 1913 flood (same presentation was also the source of the other slides above).

In September 2014, when I was presenting an invited talk on the 1913 storm system to the Omaha-Offutt chapter of the American Meteorological Society, I asked the audience of meteorologists about the plausibility of some effect from such a major volcanic eruption. “Given its placement, it likely would have had the effect of strengthening the North Atlantic Oscillation, which could have had a forcing effect in the right direction,” Kuchera mused.

To be sure, a hypothesis is not a smoking gun, nor is a top-of-head hunch scientific proof. But a volume published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 for Novarupta’s centennial noted that aerosols from the powerful eruption were still suspended in the stratosphere by late 1914, which likely would have affected the radiation budget of the earth. 

Historical measurements exist and modern feedback is encouraging that the question is at least worth exploring in a quantitative manner. I would welcome contact from any computational climatologist or other expert who would be willing/able to perform some kind of simulation using either the 20th Century Reanalysis Project (as Sarah Jamison did for the rainfall of the 1913 flood; see “Be Very Afraid… ) and/or another tool. Please e-mail me!

©2017 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Desperate Medicine

Selected references
November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes 1913 Hurricane by Michael Schumacher was published by the University of Minnesota in 2014. See also the older White Hurricane by David G. Brown, International Marine, 2002. 

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.