May 2011 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By: Christopher C. Burt , 4:01 AM GMT on June 09, 2011

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May 2011 Global Weather Extremes Summary

Extreme weather highlights for this past May include the continuation of the unbelievable deadly and destructive tornado season in the U.S., record flooding along the lower Mississippi River, and flooding in other areas of the U.S. and Canada including Lake Champlain in the Northeast. Super Typhoon Songda made glancing blows in the Philippines and Japan. A rare powerful tornado killed two in Auckland, New Zealand.

Below are some of the month’s highlights.


The outstanding single extreme weather event of the month was the EF-5 tornado (one of five so far this year) that destroyed much of Joplin, Missouri killing 138 on May 22nd. This was the 8th deadliest single tornado in U.S. history. Here is the list prior to the Joplin event UPDATE NOTE at 11pm PST June 10: CNN reports the death toll from the Joplin tornado is now at 151 following a deadly fungus infection that has killed some survivors of the initial outbreak. If confirmed this would now make the Joplin tornado the 7th deadliest tornado in U.S. history):

Table from 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book' Christopher C. Burt, W. W Norton 2nd edition, 2007.

Stunned survivors walk the streets of a hard-hit Joplin neighborhood in the aftermath of the EF-5 twister. Photo from AP.

Another deadly tornado outbreak swept across portions of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas killing 16 on May 24th. A straight-line wind gust of 151mph was recorded during one of the storms at a site in El Reno thirty miles west of Oklahoma.

The Mississippi River crested at all-time record heights in late May in Natchez, Mississippi: 61.91’ and Vicksburg, Mississippi at 57.06’. Fortunately, the careful management of levee overflows (and the planned demolition of some) by the Army Corps of Engineers prevented any truly catastrophic flooding from occuring (there was just one reported death attributed to the floods) and damage was limited to ‘just’ $9 billion mostly in agricultural losses. It could have been much worse.

Record flooding also occurred along the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, New York, and Quebec where 3000 homes were flooded in the Richelieu Valley south of Montreal by May 5th. The Lake reached its greatest flood stage on record at 103.1’ on that date (flood stage is 100.0’) at the Burlington, Vermont lake level gauge.

Lake Champlain flooded some Vermont homes along its shores when it rose 3 feet above flood stage in early May. Photo from Vermont Governors Office.

Elsewhere in Canada the Assiniboine River in Manitoba reached its record flood stage on May 24th resulting in the intentional breeching of a levee to save Winnipeg from a potentially catastrophic flood. Damage to agriculture and lost structures were estimated at $1 billion, one of Canada’s costliest natural disasters. May was the wettest such month on record for most of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as western South Dakota, eastern Wyoming, western North Dakota, and eastern Montana where, for Billings, it was the wettest single month ever recorded (9.54”—see below-this is the single most significant precipitation record broken during May).

Ironically, in Alberta, Canada a severe drought culminated in a wild fire that burned much of the town of Slave Lake to the ground. Wild fires also continued to plague Texas and new ones broke out in eastern Arizona (see Jeff Masters recent posts on this). It has been incredibly dry in the desert Southwest and Texas for the past 9 months. As of June 1st El Paso had recorded only .15” of precipitation (all snow!) since January 1st. The last significant rainfall in El Paso was on September 23, 2010.

Some U.S.A. All-time Weather Record Notes

Record spring rainfall was recorded in the following regions:

Chart from NCDC

Billings, Montana recorded its greatest single-month precipitation record with 9.54” in May (previous record of 7.71” in May 1981 smashed). It also recorded its greatest 24-hour precipitation on record with 3.35” on May 24-25 (old record 3.19” on April 27-28, 1978). Precipitation records at Billings go back to 1894.

Ely, Nevada received its greatest late season 24-hour snowfall on record with 9.0” on May 28-29 contributing to its greatest seasonal snowfall on record (see June summary for final total). Snowfall records at Ely go back to 1890.

Waycross, Georgia recorded 104° on May 23rd. The hottest ever recorded there during the month of May (records go back to 1902 at this site).

Amarillo, Texas also recorded 104° on May 29th. This was the hottest ever recorded there during the month of May (records go back to 1892 at this site).

Coldest temperature in the Northern Hemisphere for May, 2011

The coldest temperature measured in the Northern Hemisphere for the month of May was a reading of -42.7°F (-41.5°C) at Summit Station, Greenland on May 2nd.


Devastating flooding continued in Colombia. Jeff Masters reported on this in his blog on May 16th: “Exceptionally heavy spring rains have killed at least 425 people so far this year, with 482 others missing. Damages are in the billions, and there are 3 million disaster victims. "Some parts of the country have been set back 15 to 20 years", said Plan’s Country Director in Colombia, Gabriela Bucher. "Over the past 10 months we have registered five or six times more rainfall than usual," said the director of Colombia's weather service, Ricardo Lozano. Up to 800 mm (about 32 inches) of rain has fallen along the Pacific coast of Colombia over the past two weeks. The severe spring flooding follows on the heels of the heaviest fall rains in Colombia's History. Weather records go back 42 year in Colombia. Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos said, "The tragedy the country is going through has no precedents in our history."


Severe drought conditions continued to worsen during May for portions of Northern and Western Europe. Only 60% of normal precipitation has fallen during the February-April time frame and the drought is threatening to become the worst since 1976, when a drought that affected France, Germany, and the United Kingdom was considered the most devastating in modern history.

A severe extra-tropical storm slammed into Ireland and Scotland on May 22-24 almost scuttling President Obama’s visit to Ireland at that time. A wind gust of 100mph was recorded at Glen Ogle in Sterlingshire, Scotland at the height of the storm and several fatalities occurred as the result of falling trees.

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland reported its first May snowstorm in 16 years. Six inches accumulated on May 1st.


I have no information concerning any extreme weather events in Africa during the month of May. The warmest temperature measured in the Southern Hemisphere occurred at Garissa, Kenya on May 6th with a 98.6°F (37.0°C) reading.


The first major tropical storm of the year formed in the Western Pacific near the Philippines on May 19th. Super Typhoon Songda reached its peak strength on May 27th with 150mph-sustained winds and a central air pressure value of 920mb. The storm grazed Luzon Island and battered Okinawa and Miyagi, Japan with 120mph winds. Thirteen deaths were attributed to the typhoon.

Super Typhoon Songda near its peak strength on May 27th with 145mph sustained winds. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Heavy rains in Malaysia resulted in a tragic mudslide on May 21st that buried an orphanage near Hulu Langat, southeast of Kuala Lumpur. At least 16 children died in the tragedy.

The hottest temperature in the northern Hemisphere and the world during the month was reported from Turbat, Pakistan on May 20th with a reading of 122.9°F (50.5°C).


May was the coldest such in Australia since 1976 with an overall departure from normal anomaly of -1.75°C (-3.15°F). In fact, the autumn of 2011 (March-May) was the coolest since at least 1950 and possibly since 1917 (according to recently digitized data). It was also the 4th wettest autumn on record (following the wettest summer on record of Dec. 2010-Feb. 2011). Last year was the 2nd wettest calendar year on record for the continent.

These maps show the departure from average for both precipitation (top) and temperature (bottom) for Australia during the course of its fall season of March-May. Courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The temperature extremes for Australia during May ranged from 15.8°F (-9°C) at Woolbrook, New South Wales on May 11th to 95.2°F (35.1°C) at Wyndham on May 3rd. The wettest day resulted in 4.80” (122mm) at Katoomba, New South Wales on May 31st.

A violent EF-1 or 2 rated tornado swept across a portion of Auckland, New Zealand on May 3rd killing two and causing significant damage to homes and stores. It was the first fatal tornado to strike New Zealand since 1991 and the deadliest such event since a twister in 1948 killed three.

The coldest temperature in the southern Hemisphere and the world during the month was -109.7°F (-78.7°C) at Vostok Station on May 19th.

KUDOS Thanks to Maximiliano Herrera for global temperature extremes data.

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6. Misogynist
12:19 PM GMT on June 29, 2011
I'm wondering how much the thermal expansion of the oceans are going to effect the extreme weather conditions. Every inch the earth grows increases the surface rotation speed. I would think it would also increase the ocean tides and surges.
Member Since: May 27, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 33
5. Asteriskstorm
8:17 PM GMT on June 25, 2011
The weather has been changing but will it increase or decline.

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4. Vilianbryant
3:21 AM GMT on June 11, 2011
Thank you for summary!

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3. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
1:35 AM GMT on June 10, 2011
Quoting TrentonThunder:
What's astonishing about the deaths from the Joplin event as compared to all the others on the deadliest list is that those on the list prior to the Joplin event occured during times with 0, or near 0 warning! Not a single one is past 1953! Can you imagine the number if this was 1953 and it hit a town of the same population!? Also take into account the difference in foundation & construction between 1953 and 2011.

Yes, the death tolls, not only in Joplin but in the Southeast in April as well, are astonishing. In both cases ample warning was provided of the tornadoes approach.

I think the bottom line is that there is virtually nowhere to hide from F4-5 tornadoes (or EF4-5) aside from a purpose-built storm shelter.

In Joplin's case one of the reasons provided (for the large death toll) was that it was a Sunday afternoon and graduation day at local schools, hence, people were just not aware of the threat. But the sirens went off 24 minutes before the storm hit...

Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 322 Comments: 299
2. TrentonThunder
7:14 PM GMT on June 09, 2011
What's astonishing about the deaths from the Joplin event as compared to all the others on the deadliest list is that those on the list prior to the Joplin event occured during times with 0, or near 0 warning! Not a single one is past 1953! Can you imagine the number if this was 1953 and it hit a town of the same population!? Also take into account the difference in foundation & construction between 1953 and 2011.
Member Since: December 17, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 796
1. LilyZ
1:59 PM GMT on June 09, 2011
Really interesting!
Member Since: April 2, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 5

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.