The 2019 polar vortex brought bone-chilling temperatures to the Midwest—Milwaukee hit 21 below zero, Detroit shivered in minus 14 degrees, 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 minus 80 degrees in Prospect Creek, Alaska.
Within the 48 contiguous states, the record for extreme cold was set on January 20, 1954, when Rogers Pass, Montana, hit a better-wear-an-extra-sweater temperature of 70 degrees below zero. But if you want to completely escape temperatures in the negatives, you'll need to move to Hawaii, the only state that has never experienced sub-zero temperatures. The Mauna Kea Observatory on the big island of Hawaii recorded the state's coldest-ever temperature of 12 degrees 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. But though 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. 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, Phoenix, Arizona, is the place to be; it holds the record for high temperature in a large U.S. city. On June 29, 1994, the thermometer there topped off at 128 degrees.
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.
The West Maui Mountains of Hawaii hold the U.S. record for the most rain in a single month; over the month of March 1942, rain gauges there recorded 101 inches of rainfall. The same location holds the record for most annual rainfall in the United States, with a total of almost 705 inches in 1982.
But for the most rain in a 24-hour period, the town of Alvin, Texas, takes the prize, with an umbrella-breaking 43 inches of rain on July 25, 1979. Still, that's not as severe as the 13.8 inches of rain that fell on Burnsville, West Virginia, in just one hour back on August 4, 1943. The flooding from the storm killed 23 people.
Highest Wind Speed
Not surprisingly, most of the highest wind speeds ever recorded in the United States happened during hurricanes. After all, just to qualify as a Category 1 hurricane, a tropical storm needs sustained wind speeds of at least 74 miles per hour. But the wind was howling much harder than that during Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, which had a recorded wind speed of 177 miles per hour in 1992. Hurricane Camille, in 1969, reached estimated wind speeds nearly as high, but the official recording weather instruments were destroyed in the process. And while there were no weather-measuring instruments present at the time, it is estimated that the highest hurricane-driven wind speed in the United States occurred during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which struck the Florida Keys with sustained winds that are believed to have reached 185 miles per hour.
Outside of hurricanes, the highest wind speed ever recorded in the United States was atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Back on April 12, 1934, a gust of 231 miles per hour was recorded there. In fact, that was the world record for wind speed until 1996, when Tropical Cyclone Olivia hit an island off the coast of Australia with wind gusts of 253 miles per hour.
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 three-quarters-of-a mile width—at some points, it is believed to have reached a full mile across—and remained on the ground for three and a half 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 also failed to warn area residents of its approach.
Although the Galveston Hurricane's wind speeds are estimated to have hit 145 mile 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 injuries were reported—other than to the fish.
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 eight 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 13,000 people lost their lives in these three storms taken together.
But for the worst flood devastation outside of a hurricane, the tragic honor goes to the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1889. 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 super-cooled 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 two-pound chunk of frozen rain measured nearly 19 inches in circumference and created a small 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 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 snowplow 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 measured 451 inches.
Related: Buyer's Guide: The Best Snow Blowers
While many people refer to any strong winter storm as a blizzard, the official definition requires heavy falling or blowing snow, winds over 35 miles per hour, and visibility of one-quarter mile or less for at least three 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.
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