The year 2011, in apocalyptic weather events

by Jonathan Thompson

Worried that the world may end in 2012 à la the alleged Mayan prophecies? You might want to get your head out of those New Age clouds and look around: 2011 was plenty apocalyptic worldwide and in the West. Here's a month-by-month roundup of the region's freakiest climate and weather events.

January 2011 is ushered in on the heels of the year that saw the biggest jump in global carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution. The Western climate region has its eighth-driest and the Four Corners region its driest January in 117 years.

Winter La Niña brings heavy snows to the Northern Rockies. In February, Douglas, Ariz., hits 0 degrees Fahrenheit for the third time in history; Laramie's mercury plummets to -39 F. Tens of thousands of people in Arizona and New Mexico are left without natural gas to heat their homes due to cold-caused shortages. South of the border, 35 animals -- including parrots, snakes, a monkey and a crocodile -- freeze to death in a Mexican zoo.

April & May
Thanks to that epic snowpack, rivers in the Northern Rockies and Plains start rising and flooding, even as snow continues to fall in the high country. Washington, Idaho and Utah experience near-record-breaking precipitation.

May & June In late May, a huge rainstorm dumps up to 5 inches in eastern Montana and the surrounding area; record floods ensue on the Red, Souris, Wind and Missouri rivers. The latter, continuing on into June, causes an estimated $2 billion in damage. The Northwest's Columbia River also swells, and the Bureau of Reclamation releases large amounts of water from Grand Coulee Dam in order to protect the structure. That also releases large amounts of nitrogen, killing hundreds of thousands of fish.

Summer
Just as La Niña gives, so does she take away, parching much of the Southwest.
By early May, the entire state of New Mexico is racked by drought. The state goes on to experience its hottest summer in 117 years, and Roswell's mercury tops 100 F on 60 days. It will also end up being the state's second-driest water year on record. Meanwhile, Phoenix has 114 days of over 100-degree temperatures between the beginning of May and the end of September.
An unattended campfire ignites the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona in late May; it becomes Arizona's biggest wildfire ever, burning 538,000 acres. Near Los Alamos, N.M., a tree falls and hits a power line in late June, sparking the Las Conchas Fire. It burns nearly 160,000 acres, becoming New Mexico's biggest-ever fire.

July
Downburst winds from an intense storm near Tucson send a cloud of dust racing across the desert. These "haboobs" are not uncommon in southern Arizona, but this one is unusually large -- 6,000 feet high, 100 miles wide and traveling 150 miles. When it reaches Phoenix, along with 40 to 50 mph winds, it reduces visibility to zero, shuts down the airport, knocks a tree onto a police station and results in an eventual bonanza for car washes.

October
Denver sets a record daily high of 80 F. Two days later, a blizzard hits the region, dropping more than a foot of snow in areas. Arborgeddon comes to Boulder, when thousands of still-leafy trees break under the weight of the snow, blocking streets and taking out power to tens of thousands of residents.

November Wild winds wreak havoc in California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. On Nov. 18, 70 mph winds whip a fire near Reno into one of the state's worst ever. Flames reaching 100 feet into the sky force 10,000 to evacuate and burn 32 homes. At about the same time, 100+ mph wind gusts cause widespread damage in Colorado. At the end of the month, the Santa Ana winds kick up gusts as high as 100 mph in Southern California. Hundreds of trees are toppled, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes.

The end of days, indeed. But, then, isn't SoCal always kind of like that? As Joan Didion puts it in Los Angeles Notebook, "Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse and ... affect(s) the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate(s) its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are."

© High Country News