This was a new kind of storm for Nashville. “It came down harder than I’ve ever seen it rain here,” says Brad Paisley, the country singer, who owns a farm outside town. “You know how when you’re in a mall and it’s coming down in sheets, and you think, I’ll give it five minutes, and when it lets up I’ll run to my car? Well, imagine that it didn’t let up until the next day.” 1
It sure seems like there are more and more news media claims that weather is worse than it has ever been. “It’s never been this hot for so long.” “It’s never rained like this before.” “‘Polar Vortex’ set to bring dangerous, record-breaking cold to much of US.2”
Welcome to entertainment weather. Often the lead story on the evening news, extreme weather conditions get played for all that they are worth – and more. It’s something that the viewers can relate to because, often, they, or someone they know, are in the middle of it or they’ve experienced something like it.
However, the weather of today isn’t that unusual.
The heat waves, cold spells, droughts and heavy rains of recent years have all happened before. Some people might not remember what it was like in earlier years or, maybe, the last time it was like that was before they were born, but that doesn’t mean “it’s never been like this before.”
I’ll use Arkansas, where we now live, for some examples of past extremes.
In early July of 1980, we visited family in Arkansas before I got out of the Navy. The country was experiencing a heat wave, with temperature in Arkansas well over 100°F. Living in Idaho at the time, our car didn’t have air conditioning, so, for the drive home, we left in the evening to take advantage of the cooler nighttime temperatures. It was still in the 90s when we went through Kansas City around midnight.
When we moved to Arkansas in the middle of the August, the heat wave was still on. Most vegetation was brown and dry. Wildfires were common, smoke often in the air. The heat wave didn’t break for another month or so.
The heat waves of 2007 and 2012 were uncomfortable, but didn’t approach that of 1980.
Several times in the early 1980s, Lake Dardanelle had significant ice form on its surface in the Illinois Bayou area. Water from seeps in rock cliffs along highways froze and formed huge icicles. This winter, during the last so-called “extreme” cold spell of the “polar vortex,” a very thin layer of ice appeared on the Illinois Bayou area of Lake Dardanelle. Some ice formed on seeps in rocks, but didn’t last long.
On December 3, 1982 much of northern and western Arkansas suffered major flooding due to heavy rains that exceeded 12 inches in 24 hours at some locations on ground that was already saturated from earlier storms. Some parts of the state endured 500-year floods.
“Hay bales were being carried down Illinois Bayou near Scottsville at nearly 20 miles per hour. Near the peak of the event, the force of the floodwater ripped up and scoured away approximately 200 feet of the Arkansas 164 pavement and road embankment on the west side of the river,” remembered U.S.G.S. hydrologic technician Autry Meeker. 3
Downstream on the Illinois Bayou, near where it enters Lake Dardanelle, two bridges on my normal route to work were washed out. North of there, on the highway heading home that evening in heavy rain, I dodged firewood that had washed onto the road.
Raw footage from 1982 flooding and tornados:
On the “polar vortex” angle:
The cold snap triggered by the polar vortex, the low-pressure weather pattern that rammed into the United States from the Arctic the week of Jan. 5, was pretty paltry compared to cold waves in the past four decades, said Bob Henson, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
“If you look at the number of days it stayed cold all day and all night, this cold wave was much briefer than past cold waves,” Henson told LiveScience. “There are many ways to measure a cold wave, but the brevity of this one just jumps out.” 4
1 National Geographic – Extreme Weather, September 2012
2 Fox News – ‘Polar’ vortex…, January 4, 2014
3 NWAonline (saved at USGS) – Floods Flushed State’s Rivers 20 Years Ago, December 1, 2002
4 LiveScience – ‘Polar Vortex’ Event Paltry Compared to Past Freezes, January 15, 2014