Extreme Drought to Extreme Flood: Weather Whiplash Hits the Midwest

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:42 PM GMT on April 19, 2013

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It seems like just a few months ago barges were scraping bottom on the Mississippi River, and the Army Corps of Engineers was blowing up rocks on the bottom of the river to allow shipping to continue. Wait, it was just a few months ago--less than four months ago! Water levels on the Mississippi River at St. Louis bottomed out at -4.57' on January 1 of 2013, the 9th lowest water level since record keeping began in 1861, and just 1.6' above the all-time low-water record set in 1940 (after the great Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s.) But according to National Weather Service, the exceptional April rains and snows over the Upper Mississippi River watershed will drive the river by Tuesday to a height 45 feet higher than on January 1. The latest forecast calls for the river to hit 39.4' on Tuesday, which would be the 8th greatest flood in history at St. Louis, where flood records date back to 1861. Damaging major flooding is expected along a 250-mile stretch of the Mississippi from Quincy, Illinois to Thebes, Illinois next week. At the Alton, Illinois gauge, upstream from St.Louis, a flood height of 34' is expected on Tuesday. This would be the 6th highest flood in Alton since 1844, and damages to commercial property in the town of Alton occur at this water level. In addition, record flooding is expected on at least five rivers in Illinois and Michigan over the next few days. A crest 1.5' above the all-time record has already occurred on the Des Plaines River in Chicago. This river has invasive Asian Carp that could make their way into Lake Michigan if a 13-mile barrier along the river fails during an extreme flood. Fortunately, NPR in Michigan is reporting today that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crews stationed along the 13-mile Asian carp barrier have seen no evidence of the fish breaching the structure, and it would have taken a flood much larger than today's record flood to breach the structure. A crest on the Grand River in Grand Rapids, Michigan nearly 4' above the previous record (period of record: at least 113 years) is expected this weekend. At this flood level, major flooding of residential areas is expected, though the flood wall protecting downtown Grand Rapids will keep the commercial center of the city from flooding.


Figure 1. The rains that fell in a 24-hour period ending at 7 am EDT Thursday, April 18, 2013 over Northern Illinois were the type of rains one would expect see fall only once every 40 years (yellow colors), according to METSTAT, Inc. (http://www.metstat.com.) METSTAT computed the recurrence interval statistics based on gauge-adjusted radar precipitation and frequency estimates from NOAA Atlas 14 Volume 2, published in 2004 (http://dipper.nws.noaa.gov/hdsc/pfds/.) METSTAT does not supply their precipitation recurrence interval forecasts or premium analysis products for free, but anyone can monitor the real-time analysis (observed) at: http://metstat.com/solutions/extreme-precipitation-index-analysis/

Damages from the April 2013 Midwest U.S. flood in Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri are likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Some of the impacts at the flood levels predicted include:

St. Louis, MO:
Major flooding begins. At this level the Choteau Island Levee, protecting 2400 acres, is overtopped. Also, Lemay Park just south of Lemay Ferry Road will begin flood

Cape Girardeau, MO:
Many homes in the Cape Girardeau area are affected and evacuations may be required. Over 100,000 acres is flooded. Numerous roads are closed.

Hannibal, MO:
The Sny Island and South Quincy levees are overtopped between River Mile 315.4 and 264.3, flooding 110,000 acres. The South River levee is overtopped between River Mile 320.5 and 312.1, flooding 10,000 acres.

Quincy, IL:
Missouri Highway 168 east of Palmyra near the BASF plant closes; Quincy Waterworks inundated.

Note that sandbagging efforts may be able to prevent some of these flooding impacts from occurring. Wunderground's weather historian Christopher C. Burt discusses the latest rainfall and flooding records from this week's epic storm in his latest post. He plans on an update Friday afternoon.


Figure 2. Water levels on the Mississippi River at St. Louis are predicted to crest at 39.5', near major flood stage, on Tuesday. This would be the 8th greatest flood in history at St. Louis. Records at the St. Louis gauge to back to 1861. Image credit: National Weather Service.


Figure 3. Water levels on the Mississippi River at St. Louis bottomed out at -4.57' on 01/01/2013, the 9th lowest water level since record keeping began in 1861, and just 1.6' above the all-time low-water record set in 1940, after the great Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s. Image credit: National Weather Service.

Flood-Drought-Flood Weather Whiplash
Residents along the Mississippi River have experienced a severe case of flood-drought-flood weather whiplash over the past two years. The Mississippi reached its highest level on record at New Madrid, Missouri on May 6, 2011, when the river crested at 48.35'. Flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers that year cost an estimated $5 billion. The next year, after the great drought of 2012, the river had fallen by over 53' to an all time record low of -5.32' on August 30, 2012. Damage from the great drought is conservatively estimated at $35 billion. Next Tuesday, the river is expected to be at flood stage again in New Madrid, 40' higher than the August 2012 record low. Now, that is some serious weather whiplash. I'm often asked about the seemingly contradictory predictions from climate models that the world will see both worse floods and worse droughts due to global warming. Well, we have seen a classic example in the Midwest U.S. over the past two years of just how this kind of weather whiplash is possible. A warmer atmosphere is capable of bringing heavier downpours, since warmer air can hold more water vapor. We saw an example of this on Thursday morning, when an upper air balloon sounding over Lincoln, Illinois revealed near-record amounts of moisture for this time of year. The precipitable water--how much rain could fall if one condensed all the water vapor in a column above the ground into rain--was 1.62", just barely short of the Illinois April record for precipitable water of 1.64" set on April 20, 2000 (upper air records go back to 1948.) Thursday's powerful low pressure system was able to lift that copious moisture, cool it, and condense it into record rains. So how can you have worse droughts with more moisture in the air? Well, you still need a low pressure system to come along and wring that moisture out of the air to get rain. When natural fluctuations in jet stream patterns take storms away from a region, creating a drought, the extra water vapor in the air won't do you any good. There will be no mechanism to lift the moisture, condense it, and generate drought-busting rains. The drought that ensues will be more intense, since temperatures will be hotter and the soil will dry out more.

The new normal in the coming decades is going to be more and more extreme flood-drought-flood cycles like we are seeing now in the Midwest, and this sort of weather whiplash is going to be an increasingly severe pain in the neck for society. We'd better prepare for it, by building a more flood-resistant infrastructure and developing more drought-resistant grains, for example. And if we continue to allow heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide continue to build up in the atmosphere at the current near-record pace, no amount of adaptation can prevent increasingly more violent cases of weather whiplash from being a serious threat to the global economy and the well-being of billions of people.


Video 1. One person was hospitalized after a sinkhole swallowed three cars in the South Deering neighborhood on the Southeast Side of Chicago on Thursday, April 18, 2013. Witnesses said the hole opened up around 5 a.m. at 9600 South Houston Avenue, quickly growing from about 20 feet to about 40 feet. First two cars slid in, then a third as the hole widened, witnesses said. A fourth vehicle was towed from the edge as it was about to fall inside. The sinkhole was due to heavy flooding that broke a water main built in 1915.

Related Science
A 2010 study by Duke University scientists suggests that global warming is the main cause of a significant intensification in the Bermuda High that in recent decades has more than doubled the frequency of abnormally wet or dry summer weather in the Southeast United States. Thus, the Southeast U.S. may see greater than its share of "Weather Whiplash"--extreme droughts followed by extreme floods--in coming decades. Joe Romm at climateporgress.org has a post discussing the paper, with links to examples of how the Southeast U.S. has seen both extreme droughts and extreme floods since 2005.


Jeff Masters

Underpass flooding (aerojad)
Belmont St. at the Metra train station.
Underpass flooding

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Quoting BaltimoreBrian:
I am a skeptic when it comes to models 30+ days out. Almost a denier even ;)


The first tropical system should develop between May 15 and 17.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26527
Quoting aspectre:
A landing jetliner's wingtip vortices highlighted by fog and runway lights


awesome stuff
Member Since: August 21, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 7615
Quoting aspectre:
A landing jetliner's wingtip vortices highlighted by fog and runway lights


Here's the different video showing a superjumbo leaving a vortex behind that can be seen.

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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


well good luck there future met!


Thanks! The meteorology program is like climbing mount Everest intellectually, lol.
Member Since: August 21, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 7615
Hey guys, sorry for the randomness but I had to put this up
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
Quoting Jedkins01:



Oh ok, yeah thunderstorms aren't very frequent there, it has been exciting to see a few snow storms in both NC and Michigan where I have other family at, but I wouldn't want to live in Michigan where it snows all the time. It was only exciting because it was new, but I know I would get sick of snow pretty quick, even as a weather lover, just because its just so darn cold which eats at me. Too much cold weather turns me from an optimist to a pessimist, lol.

Yeah I think you would enjoy Georgia more, I live in Tallahassee now since I'm a meteorology student at FSU which is a little closer to Deep South weather like Georgia rather than like in the Florida peninsula. However, my hometown and main family is in the Tampa Bay area which I'll still be living at during the summer and breaks during the semester.


well good luck there future met!
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
Quoting aspectre:
A landing jetliner's wingtip vortices highlighted by fog and runway lights


It is pretty cool to see this. Here's the video of it.

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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


yep, same here... I don't know much about thunderstorms, perhaps because I don't live in the prime occurrence area and we here in NYC worry more about snow and hurricanes than thunderstorms (IMO)...

Let me tell you that, I might leave the Big Apple to go and live in Geogia...we are planning on that, if we do..oh baby! (forget snow), and more into severe weather



Oh ok, yeah thunderstorms aren't very frequent there, it has been exciting to see a few snow storms in both NC and Michigan where I have other family at, but I wouldn't want to live in Michigan where it snows all the time. It was only exciting because it was new, but I know I would get sick of snow pretty quick, even as a weather lover, just because its just so darn cold which eats at me. Too much cold weather turns me from an optimist to a pessimist, lol.

Yeah I think you would enjoy Georgia more, I live in Tallahassee now since I'm a meteorology student at FSU which is a little closer to Deep South weather like Georgia rather than like in the Florida peninsula. However, my hometown and main family is in the Tampa Bay area which I'll still be living at during the summer and breaks during the semester.
Member Since: August 21, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 7615
Quoting aspectre:
A landing jetliner's wingtip vortices highlighted by fog and runway lights


wow..that is cool!!!
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
A landing jetliner's wingtip vortices highlighted by fog and runway lights
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I'd like to see the model run through November 30 and see the tracks and intensity of the storms it produces.
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Quoting AussieStorm:
Anyone want a early season System in the Caribbean that moves into the GOM mid May????


CFS 912hrs...


hmm 912 hours... let me get the stopwatch for that
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
I am a skeptic when it comes to weather models 30 days out. Almost a denier even ;)
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Quoting BaltimoreBrian:
30 1/2 days? At least a little more climatologically favored by then.


Just think if we had an Atlantic tropical season with no named storms. That would just be so odd. I don't think that is possible given the need for the tropics to exchange heat with cooler regions of the earth but who knows?

I will look at it in another 10 days, If it's still there then maybe
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30 1/2 days? 38 days? At least a little more realistic by then. I've never heard of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico in May. Probably been a few tropical storms.


Just think if we had an Atlantic tropical season with no named storms. That would just be so odd. I don't think that is possible given the need for the tropics to exchange heat with cooler regions of the earth but who knows?
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Quoting MississippiWx:


I've actually never seen it before either. I guess I always got caught up in the Tuscaloosa tornado video. As awesome as the videos were from Tusacaloosa, I think that one is way better. Monster tornado.

The video that TVN filmed here in Hattiesburg would have been great if it hadn't been for the awful commentary they had.

Between "continue", "Michael, stop!", and yelling from the back, I want to punch every single one of them every time I watch this video.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 32286
Anyone want a early season System in the Caribbean that moves into the GOM mid May????

CFS 732hrs....



CFS 780hrs...



CFS 876hrs....




CFS 912hrs...
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Quoting Thrawst:


LOL I've probably seen that video more times than I've commented on blog posts on Wunderground...


I've actually never seen it before either. I guess I always got caught up in the Tuscaloosa tornado video. As awesome as the videos were from Tusacaloosa, I think that one is way better. Monster tornado.

The video that TVN filmed here in Hattiesburg would have been great if it hadn't been for the awful commentary they had.
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Kayaking in Comstock Park near Grand Rapids, Michigan
The bottom of a US mailbox is required to be 41to45inches(104to114centimetres) above road level.
But then, the "area is notorious for the flooding it experiences every spring...It's not unusual to witness residents wading through knee-deep water..."
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Quoting CybrTeddy:


.. wishcaster.


Guilty. :-(
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting Thrawst:


You can't be 100% CERTAIN a tropical cyclone will develop this season. Surely, it's likely (lol), but never a certainty. Weather occurring over a month's time, however, is certain.

Sure I can!

Fine, I'll be 99.999% certain.
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
This is the first time I've seen this particular video of the 2011 Hackleburg, AL tornado. Skip to 5:15 for the main part.

I would have no problem seeing a tornado. I would have no problem even seeing a rain-wrapped tornado.

What I would have a problem with is a seemingly mile-wide monster with distant, constant roaring and continuous power-flashes encompassed within a sky that is extremely dark.



LOL I've probably seen that video more times than I've commented on blog posts on Wunderground...
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:

Calm your rolls, Drew. If you really want to know what your forecast for May is, scroll over to AccuWeather. They're the best.

Yep, definitely the best.


*Not my image*
*Posted it since it is quiet time on the blog*
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Quoting wxchaser97:

I guess not. However, I don't care about the copyright.


It's a tie as both of our forecasts will verify.


You can't be 100% CERTAIN a tropical cyclone will develop this season. Surely, it's likely (lol), but never a certainty. Weather occurring over a month's time, however, is certain.
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Quoting wxchaser97:

Yes, that is what that model is called, navgem. It even says that on the image.


oww, I remember now..

nogaps was renamed navgem... (if I'm not mistaken)
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting MississippiWx:


Hey, look. Here is my forecast for May. It's just preliminary like yours, though:



.. wishcaster.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
This is the first time I've seen this particular video of the 2011 Hackleburg, AL tornado. Skip to 5:15 for the main part.

I would have no problem seeing a tornado. I would have no problem even seeing a rain-wrapped tornado.

What I would have a problem with is a seemingly mile-wide monster with distant, constant roaring and continuous power-flashes encompassed within a sky that is extremely dark.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 32286
Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:
and the CMC wants to pound NE with another nor'easter


navgem (?) does the same thing

Yes, that is what that model is called, navgem. It even says that on the image.
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Quoting MississippiWx:


Yikes, you must not have been paying attention.

I guess not. However, I don't care about the copyright.

Quoting Thrawst:


Mississippi still wins because it's more specific.

It's a tie as both of our forecasts will verify.
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Member Since: Posts: Comments:
and the CMC wants to pound NE with another nor'easter


navgem (?) does the same thing
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Quoting wxchaser97:

I never saw you copyright it so I'm good.


Yikes, you must not have been paying attention.
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting wxchaser97:

Can you beat this forecast? ;)



Mississippi still wins because it's more specific.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
anyway...moving on,
there could be a big storm in the Mediterranean in about 5 days



Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
Quoting MississippiWx:


I don't care for in-accuweather. Thanks for the bad advice, though.

Then I guess you're not getting your May forecast. >:(
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 32286
Quoting MississippiWx:


No, but you took my forecasting method and used it for yours. Illegal.

I never saw you copyright it so I'm good.
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Quoting wxchaser97:

Can you beat this forecast? ;)



No, but you took my forecasting method and used it for yours. Illegal.
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:

Calm your rolls, Drew. If you really want to know what your forecast for May is, scroll over to AccuWeather. They're the best.


I don't care for in-accuweather. Thanks for the bad advice, though.
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting MississippiWx:


You're being very short tonight. Every answer is 2 or 3 words. You teenagers and your mood swings. I was just trying to promote quality discussion about your forecast, but you won't even discuss it. I guess I'll just go on worried to death about the weather in my area for May. Who knows what will happen since TA won't discuss his forecast?? :-(

Calm your rolls, Drew. If you really want to know what your forecast for May is, scroll over to AccuWeather. They're the best.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 32286
Quoting MississippiWx:


I think it's about time that I'm the head of the NHC. No one can beat my forecasts. :-)

Can you beat this forecast? ;)

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Nocturnal mini blobs* forming around me right now!

*Also known as rain showers.
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Quoting Jedkins01:


Hah the unexpected part is part of what I love about them though! While they aren't good for organized chases, if you spend a whole summer here, you can learn how to anticipate them within a couple hours, and their random nature comes with a lot of suspense. I love summers in Central and south Florida, outdoor life paradise and a meteorologist paradise, lol.


I would like to go on an organized chase or research event in the plains sometime though!


yep, same here... I don't know much about thunderstorms, perhaps because I don't live in the prime occurrence area and we here in NYC worry more about snow and hurricanes than thunderstorms (IMO)...

Let me tell you that, I might leave the Big Apple to go and live in Geogia...we are planning on that, if we do..oh baby! (forget snow), and more into severe weather
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:

Don't encourage him.


You're being very short tonight. Every answer is 2 or 3 words. You teenagers and your mood swings. I was just trying to promote quality discussion about your forecast, but you won't even discuss it. I guess I'll just go on worried to death about the weather in my area for May. Who knows what will happen since TA won't discuss his forecast?? :-(
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


I was actually expecting that, since the storms were in the Plains to move eastward and eventually reach my location... but those unexpected pop up thunderstorms are not friendly..


Hah the unexpected part is part of what I love about them though! While they aren't good for organized chases, if you spend a whole summer here, you can learn how to anticipate them within a couple hours, and their random nature comes with a lot of suspense. I love summers in Central and south Florida, outdoor life paradise and a meteorologist paradise, lol.


I would like to go on an organized chase or research event in the plains sometime though!
Member Since: August 21, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 7615
Quoting MississippiWx:


I think it's about time that I'm the head of the NHC. No one can beat my forecasts. :-)


I encourage you to strive for that!

Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:

Don't encourage him.


What? Encourage? >.>
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Quoting MississippiWx:


I think it's about time that I'm the head of the NHC. No one can beat my forecasts. :-)


for sure MS.
Member Since: April 23, 2011 Posts: 104 Comments: 14873
Quoting Thrawst:


I'm sorry, but MississippiWx wins, based on the point that that forecast was dead accurate in every previous month known to man.


I think it's about time that I'm the head of the NHC. No one can beat my forecasts. :-)
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284
Quoting Thrawst:


I'm sorry, but MississippiWx wins, based on the point that that forecast was dead accurate in every previous month known to man.

Don't encourage him.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 32286

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.