The Most Extreme Weather Events in U.S. History
Extreme weather events in the United States have veered far outside the norm and often left chaos in their wake. Find out the worst events on record.
We know Mother Nature is fickle, but occasionally she goes on a veritable rampage, dealing out hurricanes, floods, and extreme temperature swings. From the devastating hurricane of Galveston in 1900 to the relentless rain fall of the West Maui Mountains in 1942, it’s safe to say that history is etched with extreme weather events that have killed hundreds of people, destroyed entire cities, and left an indelible mark on societies. Unpredictable and often destructive, these climatic upheavals have reshaped entire landscapes, populations, and lives.
In 2023 alone, the world has witnessed scorching heat waves, with July being the hottest month on record in worldwide recorded history. As we grapple with increasingly extreme weather patterns and their consequences, reflecting on history’s most dramatic weather events reminds us of the mind-blowing power and fragility of our planet’s climate.
The 2019 polar vortex brought bone-chilling temperatures to the Midwest: Milwaukee hit 21 below zero, Detroit shivered in -14 degrees Fahrenheit, and Chicago experienced a chilly 23 below zero. But those temperatures seem almost balmy compared with the lowest temperature ever recorded in the United States. On January 23, 1971, the mercury dropped to a staggering -80 degrees Fahrenheit in Prospect Creek, Alaska.
Within the 48 contiguous states, the record for extreme cold was set on February 3, 2023, when the wind chill of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington dropped 108 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, making it the lowest temperature ever recorded since U.S. meteorologists began using wind chill calculations.
If you want to completely escape negative temperatures in the U.S., you’ll need to move to Hawaii, the only state that has never experienced sub-zero temperatures. However, sensors indicated temperatures as low as 8 degrees in 2019 at the Mauna Kea Observatory on the big island of Hawaii, which had held the record for the state’s coldest-ever temperature of 12 degrees Fahrenheit in 1979.
At the opposite extreme, the United States is no stranger to hot weather: All 50 states, even Alaska, have experienced temperatures topping 100 degrees, and extended periods of triple-digit heat are just a regular part of summer throughout the Southwest.
And while you may think the record for highest temperature must have been set elsewhere in the world—after all, temperatures routinely hit the 120s in many areas of the Middle East—it’s actually the United States that holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. California’s Furnace Creek, aptly named Death Valley, hit a mind-melting high of 134 degrees on July 10, 1913.
If you prefer to do your sweating in the city, the place to be is Phoenix, Arizona; it holds the record for high temperature in a large U.S. city. On June 29, 1994, the thermometer topped off at 128 degrees Fahrenheit.
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While Portland and Seattle have reputations as rain-intensive cities, and in fact, both do experience overcast or drizzly skies on approximately 150 days of the year, neither city is anywhere near the top when it comes to record rainfall.
Mt. Waialeale, on Hawaii’s Kauai Island, holds the U.S. record for the most rain in a single month; rain gauges recorded 148.83 inches of rainfall during the month of March 1982. The same location holds the record for most annual rainfall in the United States, with a total of almost 666 inches in 1982.
Just 10 miles from Mt. Waialeale, Waipa Gardens holds the record for the most rain in a 24-hour period, with an umbrella-breaking 49.69 inches of rain from April 14 to 15, 2018.
Highest Wind Speed
While most of the highest wind speeds recorded in the United States have happened during hurricanes, it may come as a surprise that the highest one of all wasn’t part of a hurricane at all. The wind was howling much harder than during a Category 5 hurricane in 1934 when New Hampshire’s Mount Washington had a recorded wind speed of 231 miles per hour.
Mount Washington held the world record for wind speed until 1996. When Tropical Cyclone Olivia hit an island off the coast of Australia, wind gusts hit 253 miles per hour. That’s a testament to the immense power that atmospheric conditions can unleash even outside the context of a tropical cyclone!
True terrors of nature, tornadoes are rotating columns of air connecting a cumulonimbus cloud and the earth. The average tornado has wind speeds under 110 miles per hour, measures roughly 250 feet across, and travels only a few miles along the ground before dissipating. But even that’s enough to do considerable damage to buildings, trees, and power lines.
While the Tornado Alley states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota experience more tornadoes each year than anywhere else in the world, the worst tornado in U.S. history, known as the Tri-State Tornado, hit Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. With a rating of F5 on the old Fujita scale, the Tri-State Tornado struck with little warning on March 18, 1925.
The mammoth funnel grew to an awe-inspiring 3/4-mile width—at some points, it is believed to have reached a full mile across—and remained on the ground for 3.5 hours of nonstop destruction. Traveling at a rate of 62 miles per hour and with interior winds that are estimated to have hit 300 miles per hour, the tornado wound its way over 219 miles and killed 695 people. More than 2,000 people were injured, and an estimated 15,000 homes were destroyed by this devastating tornado.
Powerful rotating storms, hurricanes bring a trifecta of damaging conditions: high winds, heavy rainfall, and floodwaters. The only bright side to these devastating storms is that there is generally considerable notice before they strike, so most people are able to take steps to remain safe. But that’s not always the case.
The deadliest hurricane in U.S. history—in fact, it still stands as the deadliest natural disaster of any type in U.S. history—hit Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900. It struck with little warning, as the Weather Bureau not only incorrectly predicted the storm’s path but it also failed to warn area residents of its approach.
Although the Galveston Hurricane’s wind speeds are estimated to have hit 145 miles per hour, it was the storm surge, which climbed up to 15 feet, that caused the most devastation. At least 8,000 people lost their lives to the hurricane, and the town was completely destroyed. Damage estimates at the time were $30 million, which would be more than $700 million today.
Whenever the wet stuff is coming down fast and furious, you’ve probably heard someone say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” But it’s actually fish and frogs that are liable to fall from the skies, and although rare, it’s a phenomenon that occurs all over the planet. While it has not yet been proven how these events happen, the generally accepted theory is that a waterspout carries the aquatic animals up to high altitudes and deposits them over land.
One such fish rain happened in Marksville, Louisiana, on October 23, 1947. Although there was no rainfall reported that day—which is unusual because fish rains usually accompany heavy thunderstorms—fish were falling from the sky at a rate of roughly one fish per square yard. The unusual weather event didn’t last long, and no human injuries were reported.
Drought can and does strike anywhere, but it is practically a way of life in the Southwest and Southern California. The worst drought in U.S. history, however, wasn’t in the Southwest; it was the Great Plains that felt the brunt of the catastrophic 1930s Dust Bowl. The hardest-hit areas suffered from drought conditions for 8 years, and at the peak of the drought, nearly 80 percent of the United States was affected. The Dust Bowl drove millions of Midwesterners from their homes, most of whom headed west in search of jobs.
Another tremendous drought occurred during the 1950s, striking 10 states in the Midwest and Southwest. The drought, which lasted anywhere from 8 to 14 years depending on who is counting, also sent temperatures skyrocketing. At its peak, the drought affected 62 percent of the country.
Although floods happen for a variety of reasons, the most devastating in terms of fatalities in the United States have been caused by hurricanes, including the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the South Florida Hurricane of 1928, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Approximately a combined total of 13,000 people lost their lives in these three storms.
For the worst flood devastation that was not part of a hurricane, the tragic honor goes to the flood of 1889 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Rain fell for days, eventually overrunning, and then collapsing, the South Fork Dam outside of Johnstown. The roaring floodwaters killed more than 2,200 people and rose as much as 89 feet above river level. News of the day claimed that a wall of water 40 feet high hit Johnstown, wiping away much of the city. The raging waters carried some unfortunate victims of the flood as far as Cincinnati, more than 350 miles away.
Hail is created when water freezes within a thunderstorm. As the supercooled droplets collide, they meld onto each other, creating larger hailstones. Once the stone is too heavy for the storm’s winds to support, the hail falls to earth. Generally, individual hailstones are quite small, most not much bigger than a pea. When conditions are right, however, hailstones can become large enough to do considerable damage, breaking car windows, denting car roofs, injuring people or animals, and flattening plants.
One such massive hailstone fell in Vivian, South Dakota, on July 23, 2010. The largest single hailstone ever recorded, the 2-pound chunk of frozen rain that was nearly 19 inches in circumference and created a small 10-inch crater when it hit the ground. Luckily, no one was struck by the falling ball of ice.
While many areas of the United States experience snow every winter, there are some snowfalls that are so remarkable that they linger on in memory. One such snowstorm hit Silver Lake, Colorado, on April 14 to 15, 1921, when a record 75 inches of snow fell within 24 hours. Even the best snow plow would be hard-pressed to keep up with that!
The winner for record snowfall over an entire year is Mount Baker in Washington, where a staggering 1,140 feet of snow fell from 1998 to 1999. But it’s Tamarack, California, nestled in the Sequoias, that holds the record for the deepest snow measured on a single day. There, on March 11, 1911, the depth of the snow was 451 inches.
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While many people refer to any strong winter storm as a blizzard, the official definition requires heavy falling or blowing snow, winds greater than 35 miles per hour, and visibility of 1/4 mile or less for at least 3 hours. Blizzards can strike any cold-winter region of the United States, but they are most common in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest.
Blizzards are not unusual, but some hit harder than others. One of the worst blizzards on record battered the East Coast in mid-March of 1888. Nicknamed the Great White Hurricane, the blizzard dumped 50 inches of snow across New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. More than 400 people died in the storm, which caused such extreme horse-and-buggy gridlock that the City of New York was inspired to begin planning its subway system.
In more recent times, the “Snowmageddon” of February 2010 blanketed the Mid-Atlantic States with snow in three back-to-back blizzards, setting snowfall records throughout the region. Some areas received more than 30 inches of snow, hundreds of thousands of people lost power to their homes, and 41 people lost their lives.
Landslides are the downslope movement of rock, debris, soil, and other earth materials. While they occur all over the U.S. they are most common in regions with steep terrain and heavy rainfall, including the Rocky Mountains, Appalachian Mountains, and the Pacific Coastal Ranges.
Be that as it may, few spectacles compare to the colossal mudslide that engulfed Oso, Washington on March 22, 2014. Tragically claiming 43 lives and unleashing approximately 18 million tons of sand, till, mud, and debris, the Oso Mudslide cascaded down the hillside and destroyed dozens of homes and other infrastructure along its path.