Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where the Skies are Not Cloudy All Day

I can describe Kansas weather in one word: wind. No, that's not quite fair. There's wind with horizontal rain and wind with horizontal snow. There's wind, too, that swirls in violent, circular motions a mile wide, striking at random, racing over the prairies, destroying everything in its path. We have that.

It has broken us, it has crushed us, it has drowned us, O King of the star-bright Kingdom; the wind has consumed us as twigs are consumed by crimson fire from the sky.

-Irish, 8th-9th century

June 9, 2005 at Hill City, Kansas. Size isn't everything. Rope tornadoes can be just as, or more, destructive than wedge tornadoes. Also, a tornado need not touch ground to do massive amounts of damage.
Here's a page with all kinds of extreme weather rankings, and Kansas figures prominently. Some of these lists rank states by a single extreme, for example, which state had the hottest day ever. Other of these lists rank states by their averages, for example, which state is the hottest once you've summed up all the temperatures for the year.

Note in the first category, Top 10 cities with most weather variety, Kansas appears, not once but, THREE times, more than any other state. One of those cities, Wichita, is my own little corner of the world. We rank 4th. Topeka, KS (our capital) ranks 2nd and Concordia ranks 9th.

In the next category, Top 10 hail prone cities--O, man, did we grow up fearing hail or what?!--Kansas appears twice. Again my hometown, Wichita, ranks 4th. Kansas City ranked 10th. Texas and Oklahoma made the list, reflecting a pattern familiar to Kansans as we watch the weather radar, that is, watch the storm systems angle up through Texas and Oklahoma.
These large hailstones were associated with a supercell that produced tornadoes near Kingsdown, Kansas-May, 2002. Ref. (Visit Kansas to learn about supercell storms, just part of our everyday vocabulary.)

In Top 10 Tornado states, naturally, we ranked. We came in 3rd, right below Oklahoma, with whom we share our southern border. We also share our tornadoes. Florida ranked 1st, and I suspect that is due to hurricane-spawned twisters. I was surprised to see Texas down at 10th. I assumed they would be higher. (A couple of other interesting, state tornado facts: "Kansas has received the most F5 tornadoes since 1880. Oklahoma receives the highest number of significant and violent tornadoes per square mile.")

Top 10 Tornado prone cities showed a similar pattern. Oklahoma was first again--poor devils. Kansas was represented by my hometown again--aren't I lucky?--at 4th. Kansas appeared again on the same list at 6th, up in Kansas City.

I was surprised that Kansas made the list on 10 all-time hottest temperatures. Alton, KS actually showed up at 5th, just below the desert regions. Alton is a tiny town that Wiki tells me was the home of 117 people in 2000. It is 0.3 square miles. Interestingly, "for every 100 females there were 95.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 106.5 males." (I'm not sure what all that means.) Russell Stover was from Alton, KS! Alton is, however, not down in the southwest corner of our state (arid prairie) as I suspected. It is, rather, centrally located in the north. Go figger.
Kansas didn't make the list of 10 hottest cities (average temps). That honor went almost entirely to Florida, which doesn't experience cold weather. Texas had two entries. We weren't on the list for 10 driest cities either (averaged), because the eastern one-third of our state, including Wichita, receives moderate rainfall, being a bit more Missouri-like than desert-like. Nor were we snowiest, rainiest, sunniest or most humid, all for which I am extremely grateful!
As for Top 10 clean air cities, I didn't expect Kansas to be there either. There are many states wilder and larger than us, with fewer people and less industry. I was surprised, however, to find us topping the list on Top 10 worst cities for pollen counts. Kansas City was number 1! What's up with that? I blame the Missouri side for ragweed and call foul!

Kansas appears on one other of the extreme lists, Top 10 windiest cities. Dodge City and Goodland, KS, ranked second and eighth respectively, both are in the west, but Dodge is down south and Goodland up north. Chicago, IL is not on the list. In fact, there are no midwestern cities on the list at all. Massachusetts was the only eastern state ranked. The other states were Texas, Minnesota, Wyoming and Montana (Big Sky Country). I don't count Minnesota as being in the east, although the Mississippi springs from that state.

So there you have it. Living in Kansas means it's likely to be windy, damn windy, windy enough to overturn semi-trucks and knock cars off the road, windy enough to cause power outages from downed electric lines. If there's any snow, even a mere inch or so, it may be driven into drifts so high they shut down the highways. Rain is just as often horizontal as it is vertical. It's probably going to hail, hail the size of baseballs that trash your car, ruin your crops and damage your roof. On the other hand, it might be dry so long the towns restrict watering and place bans on burning because of the danger of grass fires. That is, when we're not flooding. It'll be really hot in the summer, really cold in the winter. In the spring or fall, your entire town (literally) may be blown away by tornadoes.
Greensburg, KS May 16, 2007 - The center of town twelve days after it was hit by an F5 tornado with 200 mph winds. Debris removal is moving at a record pace, but reconstruction will likely take years.

As one might imagine, Kansans are year-round, serious weather watchers. Obsessive is a better word. Our weather stations have all the latest and most expensive equipment and technology. Schoolchildren are fed this stuff like it's grammar and arithmetic. Even the smallest school has a weather station. Storm coverage by the news stations is sophisticated, rapid, detailed, specific and thorough, presented nearly on par with entertainment programming. Although, we don't have skimpily-clad girls present our weather. Our newsweather people are serious students of the science, well-trained and competitive with each other. KAKE has VIPIR 3D radar with Jay Prater as chief meteorologist. KWCH has a team of 5 anchors, led by long-time weather anchor, Merril Teller, reporting the weather with Skycam 12 and Satcam 12. (In contrast, KWCH has only 3 sports anchors and one is a lowly reporter.) KSN has HD Doppler Radar led by Dave Freeman, chief meteorologist of the KSN Weatherlab.

Kansans are weather savvy and read radar like pros. We know all about "hooks" and "echoes" and "wall clouds" and know "supercells" signal hail. We're familiar with the general, weather patterns over our region and can predict the direction of storms and likelihood they'll reach our location. Grocery stores get busy before winter storms. People wait until after hail storms to turn in roof damage to insurance. We plan, in fact, deciding whether there's time to mow the front lawn before the tornado hits!! I kid not!

Madness, but it's just a little worse than all this. One statistic for which there was no extreme list is actually one of the most hazardous weather conditions in Kansas. In winter, we get ice, terrible, treacherous ice. I can't say for sure, but I suspect most of our winter precipitation comes in this frightening form, rather than as snow. We actually don't get much snow, very rarely a pretty, fluffy snowfall. Instead, we have ice storms, where the ice coats all the power lines, bringing them down across highways and streets and trees, wiping out our power for days sometimes. The ice coats the limbs of the trees until they're so burdened they break and crack like gunshots, waking you in the night. The ice sheets the streets, making it impossible to drive around safely. It's not unusual for schools and businesses to close with less than an inch of snow on the ground. It's not the snow that is the road hazard, it's the treacherous ice hidden underneath. Then the wind blows, drifting the snow across the ice, and...yea, that's about it...nasty.
Wichita in January, 4th and 5th, 2005. On average, we were without power for three days in the city, longer in rural areas. This was a typical scene on every street--yea, that's the street--in town. No one was spared. At our house, breaking tree limbs started fires in the electric lines.

You never really know for sure about Kansas weather, but it's never boring.

And then there was this spring... and then summer...Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins, because it flickers so.

-Irish, 9th century

No comments: