Heat, drought, fire and ice: Looking back on a year of wild Texas weather

THAT'S TEXAS WEATHER

12/21/2011 11:38 PM

08/28/2012 5:58 AM

FORT WORTH -- North Texas has a bad-boy reputation for wild weather, but this year even the pros were awed by our mercurial clime.

First up was the Super Bowl fiasco featuring 100 hours of freezing temperatures ramped up by arctic winds.

Next were spring wildfires that morphed into countless summer blazes and then the deadly Labor Day weekend fires. Nearly 4 million acres burned their way into the state record book.

All the while, an unrelenting record drought was drying up Texas water supplies, killing lawns and hundreds of millions of trees, and kicking the agricultural industry in the head.

Then there was the one burned into our collective memory: the hottest summer ever.

"It was a big year," said Bill Bunting, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth.

"When you think of all the big events -- the drought is historic, the heat broke records for the number of 100-degree days, and then the Super Bowl -- you couldn't ask for a worse time for that 100 hours of freezing temperatures," he said. "It's not easy to pick the big event."

But Dan Huckaby, a meteorologist and climate specialist for the weather service, takes the hot seat and puts the summer heat and drought atop his inventory of five big North Texas events. Fires, snow and tornadoes fill out his list.

"We had it all, but the summer heat is what will define 2011," he said.

Hot days, hot nights

Here's a sweaty recap: a record 71 days of 100 degrees or higher, 40 consecutive 100-degree days (second place behind 1980's 42), 19 days of 105 degrees or more (second behind 1980's 28) and a high of 110 degrees Aug. 2 (tied for seventh place).

The summer also cooked the DFW record books with the highest average temperature (90.6, topping 89.2 degrees in 1980) and the warmest month on record, August (93.4 degrees, topping 92.0 in July 1980).

Even the nights were miserable, with 55 days where the low was 80 degrees or higher, torching the record of 39 set in 1998.

On Aug. 3, the high temperature was 109 after a morning low of 86, adding up to the highest mean temperature ever recorded for Dallas-Fort Worth.

There were 35 record-high lows between May 30 and Sept. 2.

This year owns the chart of high lows, with three other 86s and six 85s. The only other low of 85 came way back on Sept. 1, 1939.

But comparing 1980 with 2011 might be unfair because the Metroplex is a different kind of beast now, Huckaby says, pointing to the "heat island" effect magnified by countless miles of new roads and acres of additional concrete.

The unrelenting drought has also been one for the ages.

State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon says it is the most severe one-year drought on record.

Don't forget the cold

At the other end of the DFW extremes was the frigid front end of February, which featured a record low of 15 degrees on the 10th, the first record low since Dec. 4, 2006. Five straight mornings were in the teens.

Compounding the misery for the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 were snow and sleet Feb. 1, 3, 4 and 9.

Super Bowl organizers were undoubtedly counting on the fact that, in most years, early February highs are in the 50s, 60s and 70s. But, this being Texas, sooner or later the wild card gets dealt.

"If you pick a day at random, it's probably going to be nice, but it could be really cold. Maybe Jerry Jones hadn't been living right. It couldn't have been timed any worse," said Huckaby, noting that the area has had winter precipitation every year since the weather bureau opened in Fort Worth in 1898.

"It's like any day in Texas: You can probably find about anything that has happened. Here we see it all," he said.

In April, it was wind, wildfires and tornadoes.

A wind-driven firestorm erupted west of Fort Worth around Possum Kingdom Lake on April 15, burning about 148,000 acres, 166 homes and 95 percent of Possum Kingdom State Park.

The devil winds howled all spring and into the summer, prompting the Fort Worth weather office to issue 24 red-flag warnings for extreme fire danger.

April had five days with wind speeds averaging 20 mph or more in the Metroplex. The month's average was 14.8 mph, 2.7 mph above normal.

"Two mph [above normal] over a whole month is pretty significant," Huckaby said.

Winds also averaged 20 mph or more on four days in June. The only other June in the last decade with any such days came in 2007.

Even rarer are 20-mph winds in September. Those happened Sept. 4, when wildfires raged across the state, most notably in Bastrop and again around Possum Kingdom.

Dodging a bullet

As the fires roared elsewhere in the state, tornadoes were touching down in North Texas.

Four tornadoes hit April 10-11, including two in Johnson County. A twister in Hunt County had winds estimated at 100 to 110 mph and a track nearly 7 miles long.

The Metroplex escaped disaster April 25-26, when 21 tornadoes swarmed across North Central Texas, most of them in a line 35 miles south of DFW.

Bunting said it was the busiest night of his 26-year career.

Huckaby calls it an extraordinary event.

"I remember looking at the radar and thinking it looked like a dozen tornadoes going on at once south of the Metroplex," he said. "We really dodged a bullet."

One day later, the same system crashed into Tuscaloosa, Ala., spawning dozens of tornadoes and killing more than 200 people, and continued across the South.

On May 24, 10 more tornadoes strafed North Texas. Most were rated EF-0, with 40- to 72-mph winds, but an EF-1 (73-112 mph) hit Irving and an EF-2 (113-157 mph) struck near Denton and Argyle.

Bunting said it all adds up to a uniquely Texas weather cycle.

"We've had years that were hot, years that were dry, years that were stormy and years that were cold. This year we had it all," he said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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