Weather is local. Climate is global.
In the twenty counties of West Kentucky climate and weather are coming together to increasingly affect the way West Kentuckians live and work. From 2004 through 2014, there have been over 200 severe weather events that have caused 100s of millions of dollars for damages and have killed people.
West Kentucky is a mixing area for storms. With four major rivers in the area, storms coming in from the north and storms coming in from the south combine to create weather disasters. Northern storms carrying severe cold with snows often veer east along the Ohio River Valley.
Storms coming up from the south tend to carry heavy precipitation. West Kentucky winter weather is ruled by one major factor - where the line of freezing temperature fall. Above the line, temperatures indicate snow. Below and on the line -sleet, freezing rain and ice.
In the past decade, Western Kentucky counties have recorded wind chill factors of 20 below zero to heat waves of over 125 degrees. Yearly, severe weather events of ice, snow, tornadoes, flooding, heat, droughts, wind cause major damage to property and quality of life.
West KY Journal is building a database of weather events from 2004 up through 2014. Research will focus on the major weather events in West Kentucky month by month. Data from the NOAA office in Paducah is being sifted for trends. Information for 2014 is sketchy at this writing and results are preliminary.
We have identified 5 major trends or new realities for regional weather events in West Kentucky.
(1) Longer Lasting Winter Storms
The first three months of the year - the heart of winter of January, February and into March are dominated by ice and snow storms. Over a ten year period, seven years have seen mega ice storms, heavy snow storms and deep freezing temperatures. The region that once grew cotton comfortably now has a colder, wetter winter periods.
Weather events in winter over the past ten years have tended to last longer. Snow or ice stays on the ground for up to two weeks at a time. Schools close for five to twenty days during this period. Social events are put on hold. People stay inside. Winter is particularly hard on the very young and very old. Heating bills go up to $500 to $800 dollars a month.
(2) Wetter Springs
Spring brings tornadoes, thunderstorms, straight line winds and heavy downpours. Flooding small creeks wash out roads and bridges, cutting residents off. Severe weather warnings become almost commonplace.
One week in March 2006, from the 9th to the 13th, 111 severe weather warnings were issued from the NOAA Paducah office.
(3) Drought, Heat Waves Burn the Region
The months of May, June, July, August, and September major heat storms and droughts have plagued the area. Out of the 10 years of study, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2012 have all shared extreme heat and long droughts.
Over the past fifteen years, a pattern of three years of extreme heat, then two years of mild weather, then back to three years of extreme heat. If this pattern holds, the years 2015, 2016, and 2017 will be the next wave of extreme heat waves and droughts for West Kentucky weather.
According to a new report from NASA and NOAA, "The year 2014 ranks as Earth's warmest since 1880."
Research by NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York shows "The 10 warmest years in instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000."
(4) Mild Autumns
The months of September, October, November for the most part, are mild temperatures and nice weather.
Out of the 10 years, mild weather was dominant in eight years during these months.
One exception was the impact of Hurricane Ike when it hit in 2008. In Clinton, Kentucky, Ike took out over 300 old trees. Most were 2 to 3 feet in diameter.
(5) December Storms
During the month of December, in seven of ten years, major ice storms or snow storms have ravaged West Kentucky.
December, once chilly and mild is now the start of long winters (Dec.-Jan.-Feb.-Mar.) when bad weather strikes West Kentucky the hardest. Into this winter mix has been the addition of Arctic chilling storms.
Water: Too Much or Too Little
Our weather extremes are we have too much water at the wrong time or too little water. Water comes as raging flooding, severe ice storms, hail, mega snow storms. and drowning rains.
Communities that once took a short spell of bad weather in stride now have to deal with snow removal, flood prevention and repairs to infrastructure in a time of shrinking budgets. The need for a constant stream of goods moving into and through the region now mandates that roads be cleared by the time the snow stops falling and well before the ice starts melting.
The addition of brining for retreating roadways has improved transportation on major arteries. Further improvements in dealing with too much water at one time are needed. Roofs built in earlier days - especially flat ones - cause structural damage. Building collapses are often directly traced to water damage.
Drought affects the region's largest industry - farming. Deeper wells and irrigation machines are helping large farmers cope when rain does not fall. But falling water tables when the big machines are at work bring their own problems to rural residents with shallower wells.
How West Kentuckians deal with these new weather realities will define whether the benefit of abundant fresh water will prove to be a benefit or a curse as we move forward in this new 21st Century.