NOAA Public Affairs


NOTE TO EDITORS: Following is a summary of the major weather and climate events of 1998 and several 1998 National Weather Service highlights that you may want to develop in your end-of-the-year reporting. Please contact John Leslie, NOAA/NWS Public Affairs at (301) 713-0622 or Stephanie Kenitzer at (301) 763-8000 ext. 7007 should you need assistance in developing these stories:

1998 -- A Wet, Warm and Wild Year: From the powerful El Niño, to the ice storms that froze states to the north and searing heat that scorched states to the south, to floods that swallowed parts of America's heartland, to the horrific might of Hurricane Mitch, 1998 will go down in the annals of weather history as one of the wildest weather years in recent times. Following is a summary of the some of the major weather and climate events of 1998.

United States Weather and Climate Summary

The United States was wet and warm in 1998. Based on preliminary January-November data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 1998 was the wettest year since 1973 and the second wettest year since 1895, when detailed records began. The ranking for wetness was remarkable given the severe drought that extended from the southern Plains to Florida during the spring and summer.

Depending on temperatures during December, 1998 could end up being the warmest year on record. Heat was persistent and widespread during the year, with the country observing its second warmest winter on record, twenty-eighth warmest spring, ninth warmest summer, and second warmest autumn. Among the contiguous 48 states, only California was cooler than normal, thanks in part to an especially cool spring.

The greatest number of tropical storms to strike the country since 1985 caused an estimated $6.5 billion in damages, but helped to relieve drought in the South. Though the abnormal weather contributed to a 28 percent drop in the nation's cotton crop and 21 percent drop in the orange crop compared with 1997, adequate rainfall and lack of sustained heat in the Corn Belt resulted in record soybean production and the second greatest corn output. Aided by El Niño-enhanced rains, the nation harvested its largest wheat crop since 1990, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.

El Niño. Called the "climatic event of the century," one of the strongest El Niños on record dominated the winter weather across the country. El Niño-related winter storms and floods from December 1997 to March 1998 damaged property and crops in California, and were blamed for 17 deaths (Source: NOAA/National Climatic Data Center [NCDC]). Most of the damage resulted from fierce storms in February, mainly during the first 10 days of the month. California recorded 200 to 400 percent of normal precipitation, making it the seventh wettest winter (December-February) in the past 103 years.

El Niño-related storms, floods, and tornadoes during winter-spring 1998 in the Southeast caused over $1 billion in damages and 132 deaths. Florida, where winter rainfall (December - February) averaged 19 inches or 220 percent of normal, recorded both its wettest winter and wettest November-March period ever. Florida also endured its deadliest tornado outbreak on record when storms on the night of Feb. 22 killed 41 people in the Kissimmee area (Source: National Weather Service [NWS]/Storm Prediction Center [SPC]), and destroyed 800 residences (Source: NCDC).

El Niño-related Hawaii drought from autumn of 1997 to May of 1998 resulted in water restrictions in several areas and diminished reservoir supplies. As of mid-June, Honolulu had measured only 1.76 inches of rain since January 1, just 16 percent of normal.

The 1997-98 El Niño was the first time that scientists around the world were able to observe a major climate event from beginning to end, and issue valuable forecasts to help mitigate the potential impacts. The NWS issued predictions for the winter 1997-98 that allowed emergency managers, businesses, communities and individuals to take steps to prepare.

New England Ice Storm. One of the worst ice storms on record struck upstate New York and northern New England during January 5-9, causing extensive damage to trees and powerlines and taking 16 lives. A one-to-three-inch coating of ice left as many as 500,000 utility customers without power and made road travel nearly impossible. In Maine, four out of five residents lost electrical service. This was the worst ice storm to hit the country since February 1994, when a storm over the Southeast caused billions of dollars worth of damage (Source: NCDC). National Weather Service Forecast Offices in the region worked countless hours to provide emergency managers and the public with life-saving weather information.

Mild, Warm Winter. The second mildest winter in 103 years (December-February) saved consumers billions of dollars in heating costs while urban areas saved funds on snow-removal costs. Winter temperatures averaged more than 10 F above normal over the North-Central states and more than 5 F above normal from the Midwest through the Northeast.

Wet, Stormy Spring. A wet, stormy spring with numerous severe weather outbreaks broke rainfall records in the Midwest and Northeast and damaged crops in California. The West had its wettest May-June ever, and April-June was the wettest such period since at least 1895 in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; the third wettest in Tennessee; and the fourth wettest in Iowa. Atlantic, Iowa, set a state record for daily precipitation, measuring 13.18 inches of rain on
June 14.

Severe Tornado Outbreaks. Severe storms were rampant in spring, with a tornado outbreak taking 34 lives in Alabama on April 8. On May 30, a tornado destroyed Spencer, South Dakota, and claimed 6 lives. According to the NWS, the nation recorded 333 tornadoes (but only three deaths) in June, about 150 more than average and the second highest June total in 49 years of record (Source: SPC). Although severe weather diminished after June, the preliminary national death toll from tornadoes during all of 1998 reached 129, about twice the number recorded in 1997 and three times the average. By early December, an estimated 1255 tornadoes had occurred across the U.S., with five of those being F4-F5 intensity.

At least 20 tornadoes cut a swath of destruction through parts of Oklahoma on Oct. 4, breaking a record for the most tornadoes ever reported in a single day in a single state during the month of October since records began in 1950. Figures indicate 13 tornadoes touched down in western and central Oklahoma, and seven in other parts of the state. The number of confirmed tornadoes in Oklahoma eclipsed the previous mark for October tornado outbreaks set in 1996, when 18 twisters tore through sections of Florida. As a result of accurate and timely weather warnings from local NWS forecast offices, no lives were lost during this October outbreak.

Wildfires in Florida. By mid July, wildfires raging since late May in Florida had consumed some 490,000 acres of land and destroyed at least 370 structures. Wildfires in Texas burned 143,000 acres in May-June, while the severe drought caused more than $2 billion in damage to agriculture, according to state officials. For the year, wildfires across the southern U.S. burned 1.3 million acres, four times the acreage burned in 1997. The NWS deployed a team of fire weather meteorologists to Florida to aid in providing the most accurate and timely weather information to help manage the fires and keep firefighters safe.

Summer Heat Wave and Drought. Spring and summer heat and drought caused massive wildfire outbreaks in Florida and damage to crops from the southern Plains to the Southeast. April-June was the driest such period in 104 years of record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. May-June was the warmest such period on record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The total drought and heat costs exceeded an estimated $6 billion in damage/costs and resulted in at least 200 deaths (Source: NCDC).

Summer-autumn drought from the mid-Atlantic to Tennessee Valley caused crop losses, increased wildfire risk, and threatened water supplies. July-November rainfall was the lowest since 1930 in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. In addition, Tennessee, Maryland, and Virginia posted their second, third, and fourth driest autumns in 104 years of record, respectively.

Active Hurricane Season. A total of 14 tropical storms and hurricanes developed in the Atlantic basin during the 1998 season. Three hurricanes and four tropical storms made landfall in the United States this year, the most to strike the nation since 1985. Three hurricanes (Bonnie, Earl, and Georges), as well as Tropical Storms Charley, Frances, and Mitch, caused an estimated $6.5 billion in damage to the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands, according to data released by the NWS' Tropical Prediction Center.

Hurricane Bonnie struck the North Carolina coast on Aug. 26, killing three; cutting off power to nearly a half-million people; and causing $720 million dollars in damage. Earl hit the Florida Panhandle on Sept. 3, causing $79 million in damage. Hurricane Georges caused $5.1 billion in damage, much of it in Puerto Rico on Sept. 21-22, where it damaged or destroyed more than 170,000 homes before crossing the Florida Keys and striking the U.S. Gulf Coast near Biloxi, Mississippi on Sept. 27 (Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency). Up to 20 inches of rain deluged Puerto Rico as well as northwest Florida and southeastern Alabama. Hurricane Mitch, which caused an estimated 9,000 deaths in Central America, crossed southern Florida as a tropical storm on Nov. 4-5, bringing tornadoes, heavy rains, and flooding.

Throughout the season, NOAA scientists, working with NASA and university collaborators, conducted the most complete and sophisticated campaign of observations in hurricanes ever. This investment in technology and research continues to provide better hurricane predictions.

Flooding throughout Texas and other areas. Tropical Storms Charley and Frances, along with several other wet weather systems, brought heavy rains to Texas from August to November, ending drought over much of the state, but causing at least 42 deaths from several rounds of severe flooding. Tropical Storm Charley caused 9 deaths in Texas. Del Rio, Texas, recorded its wettest day ever on August 23 with 17.03 inches of rain from Charley's remains. During the previous 8 1/2 months, Del Rio had measured just 2.89 inches. Frances made landfall on the Texas coast on September 11, bringing a five-foot storm surge and over two feet of rain. Another weather system brought over a foot of rain to southeast Texas on Oct. 17-18, causing major flooding and at least 29 deaths. Raging floodwaters swept away or destroyed dozens of homes. San Antonio tallied 18.07 inches of rain in October, its wettest month ever, including 11.26 inches on Oct. 17, the city's wettest day ever. More than 10 inches of rain on south-central Kansas during Oct. 30 - Nov. 1 caused thousands of residents to seek shelter.

Early Winter Storms This Fall. One of the most intense November storms on record crossed the Great Plains on Nov. 9-10, setting all-time low pressure readings in Iowa and Minnesota. The "super storm" caused 90 mph wind gusts in Wisconsin, over a foot of snow in the northern Plains, and 20-foot waves on Lake Michigan.

Late Fall "Heat Wave." An unprecedented autumn "heat wave" from mid-November to early December broke or tied over 700 daily-high temperature records from the Rockies to the East Coast. More than 70 monthly temperature records were set in the first eight days of December alone, as temperatures rose into the 70s as far north as South Dakota and Maine.

Signs of La Niña. A series of Pacific storms slammed into the Northwest during November and early December, hurling 100-mph winds at the coast, knocking roofs off of buildings and cutting power to thousands of people. Heavy rains triggered floods in Washington and Oregon. Seattle, Washington set a November record with 11.62 inches of rain.

2. Goodbye El Niño -- Hello La Niña: The 1997-98 El Niño was the first time that scientists around the world were able to observe a major climate event from beginning to end, and issue valuable forecasts to help mitigate the potential impacts. The NWS' Climate Prediction Center issued predictions for the winter 1997-98 that allowed emergency managers, businesses, communities and individuals to take steps to prepare.

This winter we will not see another El Niño but another climate phase called La Niña. La Niña tends to bring nearly opposite effects of El Niño to the United States — wetter than normal conditions across the Pacific Northwest and drier and warmer than normal conditions across much of the southern tier of the country. The Climate Prediction Center forecasts indicate the cold episode (La Niña) will likely continue through the northern 1998-99 winter.

3. New NWS Leader Envisions America's "No Surprise" Weather Service: John J. Kelly, Jr. became director of the National Weather Service in February 1998. Under his leadership the National Weather Service has adopted a vision to be America's "no-surprise" weather service. Under Kelly's leadership, the NWS strives to be "a world class team of professionals who produce and deliver quality forecasts you can trust when you need them most; use cutting edge techniques; provide services in a cost effective manner; strive to eliminate weather-related fatalities and improve the economic value of weather information."

4. Interactive Computer Systems Multiply the Benefits of Modernized Weather Services: In April 1998, Commerce Secretary William M. Daley approved the NWS' plan for a full production and installation of interactive weather computer and communications systems that will help provide better weather- and flood-related services to protect life and property. In total, 152 Advanced Weather Interactive Processing Systems (AWIPS) will be installed nationwide by the end of FY 1999. AWIPS will help NWS forecasters take full advantage of the many modern technologies that the NWS has added during its decade-long modernization and restructuring.

5. New Supercomputer Will Improve Weather, Climate and Flood Forecasts. In October 1998, the NWS awarded a four-year contract to lease a new supercomputer that will significantly improve its weather, flood and climate forecasts for the country from International Business Machines (IBM). The new high-performance Class VIII computing system will use a highly parallel computer architecture to immediately provide a significant increase in computational capacity and will allow the NWS to operate more sophisticated models of the atmosphere and oceans to improve weather, flood and climate forecasts for the country.

6. Dial-A-Buoy Service Launched: A new service called Dial-A-Buoy lets mariners obtain the latest coastal and offshore weather observations from the NWS by telephone. Dial-A-Buoy provides wind and wave measurements taken within the last hour at 65 buoy and 54 Coastal-Marine Automated Network stations located in coastal waters around the United States and in the Great Lakes. A phone line at the National Data Buoy Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., allows callers to enter a combination of touch tone keys and get current observations which also are posted on the Center's Internet site

7. Potentially Life-Saving Radio Network Grows: With the installation of 26 new transmitters, the NOAA Weather Radio network expanded this year to a total of 481 stations located in all 50 states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and U.S. Pacific Territories. NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts up-to-the-minute NWS forecasts and warnings 24 hours a day. The newest models can be set to activate when severe weather strikes -- even when you are asleep!

8. NWS Is the Primary Source of Weather Data: The data used to produce the slick TV weather graphics that you see on the evening news most likely originated with the NWS that day. NWS data and products form a national information database and infrastructure which can be used by other governmental agencies, the private sector, the public, and the global community. Taxpayers provide more than a billion dollars a year to maintain the NWS' newly modernized infrastructure of weather satellites, radars, and supercomputers that benefit us all with more accurate weather and climate forecasts and warnings.

9. EMWIN is a Win-Win: The NWS and emergency managers continue to strengthen their partnership to help protect lives and property faced by the threat of severe weather. One example of this alliance is the Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN), a system that transmits live weather information to computers across the U.S., the Caribbean and over most of the Pacific Ocean. More than ever, the EMWIN system gives emergency managers the capability to respond faster to severe weather and other natural threats. Recently, EMWIN received frequency certification and will be allowed to operate on 163.35 MHZ at 175 watts in Silver Spring, Md. Additionally, EMWIN also received a national frequency of 163 and 163.35 MHZ at 100 watts to operate throughout the United States and its possessions. (EMWIN backgrounder)

10. Modernization Pays Off: The NWS team of world class meteorologists strives daily to reach a goal of providing the American public with a "no surprise" National Weather Service and give the public the most benefit possible from the nearly completed $4.5 billion modernization. Recent severe weather verification statistics prove that this goal is well within reach. For example, lead time warnings for flash floods improved from 22 minutes in 1993 to 52 minutes in 1998. While accuracy for flash flood predictions increased from 71 percent to 83 percent. Also, lead time for tornado warnings nearly doubled from six minutes in 1993 to 11 minutes in 1998. During those five years, tornado warning accuracy increased from 43 percent to 67 percent. The NWS has set goals to continue improving services into the next millennium to keep the public safe and demonstrate the potentially life-saving value of tax dollars for weather services. The NWS continues to strive for greater warning lead times and accuracy not only for tornado and flash floods, but also for severe thunderstorms, temperature forecasts, snowfall amounts, precipitation forecasts and landfall for hurricanes.