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America's weather was extreme this year

WASHINGTON—It's not just your imagination. America's weather went wild this year.

It began with a record downpour in the Nevada desert and record warmth in Alaska, and it's ending with floods in California and wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma that have killed four people and consumed 37,795 acres.

Along the way, at least 214 climate records were smashed or tied, thanks to a slew of hurricanes, 21 straight days of 100-degree-plus temperatures in Fresno, Calif., and wildfires that have burned 8.64 million acres, nearly a quarter-million more than the previous record, set in 2000.

Extremes were everywhere. Above-normal heat covered twice as much land as usual. Excessive rain and/or snow blanketed three times as much land as normal. Average daily low temperatures were warmer than normal across four times as much U.S. territory as in average years.

It was the third worst year for U.S. extreme-weather events in history, according to the National Climatic Data Center. For 2005's first 11 months, the nation had an extreme-climate index figure of 35, behind only 1998's 42 and 1934's 37. The average annual score is 20.

One form of extreme weather fell short, however: tornadoes. In 2005, there were only half as many killer U.S. tornadoes as recent norms.

The relentless Atlantic hurricane season especially marked 2005 as wild—and tragic. Hurricanes set or tied 19 records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including:

_Hurricane Katrina caused $50 billion in insured damages.

_Hurricane Wilma set a hemispheric record for low barometric pressure.

_Three Category 5 hurricanes formed: Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

_A record seven major storms packed winds above 110 mph; the old record was five.

_Fourteen hurricanes in the season beat the old record of 12.

_The 26 named storms shattered the old mark of 21, set in 1933, causing meteorologists to run out of conventional names for hurricanes and tropical storms. They had to go five deep into the Greek alphabet for new names.

Many of the remaining extremes came from Alaska, which had 53 percent of the wildfire acreage burned and set temperature, rain and snow records almost weekly. That's because Alaska is getting hotter from global warming and its permafrost is melting, said Jay Lawrimore, the chief of the National Climatic Data Center's climate-monitoring branch.

It's less clear whether what's happening nationally can be blamed on global warming or results from mere chance. Scientists are researching the question on supercomputers. One theory is that warmer air holds more moisture, creating bigger downpours, snowfalls and stronger hurricanes, and that warmer air also worsens droughts.

Lawrimore said that one year's extremes couldn't necessarily be blamed on climate change and were more likely to reflect random weather shifts. But Kevin Trenberth, the climate-analysis chief at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said initial studies showed that global warming might be a factor.

In his latest research, Trenberth calculated that because the ocean is warmer, there's been an 8 percent increase in moisture flowing into tropical storms and hurricanes, and in rain coming out of them. For Katrina, that meant an extra inch of rain fell on the Gulf Coast.

"We're in the realm now where global warming is with us and we're going to see this year to year," Trenberth said.

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Unusual weather records from 2005, and ones of local interest to some Knight Ridder newspapers.

January:

Jan. 3: Las Vegas sets a city record of 0.81 inches for the most rainfall on one January day.

Jan. 8: Valdez, Alaska's 54 degrees beats the city's previously warmest January day by 8 degrees.

Jan. 9: Pocatello, Idaho, had its snowiest January day, 8.3 inches.

January total: Boston's Logan airport reported 43.1 inches of snow, its snowiest month ever.

February:

Spokane, Wash.'s total 0.04 inches of rain was its driest February on record.

Miles City, Mont.—with no rain—had its driest February ever.

March:

March 11: San Jose, Calif.'s 87 degrees was its hottest March day ever.

March 18: Rochester, Minn., had its snowiest day ever with 19.8 inches, beating 15.4 inches in 1982.

Dec. `04-March `05: Cleveland's Hopkins airport had its snowiest season ever—105.3 inches.

April:

April 29: Anchorage, Alaska's warmest April day ever, 72 degrees.

April 29-30: Jackson, Ky., had its wettest 24 hours, with 3.13 inches of rain.

April total: Pensacola, Fla., had its wettest month ever, with 24.46 inches of rain.

May:

May 3: Aberdeen, S.D.'s coldest May day ever, a low of 13 degrees.

May 3: Fort Wayne, Ind., tied its 1966 coldest May day ever with a low of 27 degrees.

May total: Burley, Idaho, had the wettest May with 5.06 inches of rain, beating 1998's 4.35 inches.

June:

Naples, Fla., had its wettest June with 21.28 inches of rain.

Boundary Dam, Wash., had its wettest June with 5.47 inches, beating 1981's 4.67 inches.

July:

July 18: Big Bear Lake, Calif., tied its 1972 hottest day ever with 94 degrees.

July 19: Las Vegas tied its 1942 hottest day ever with 117 degrees. It also had the highest low temperature for the day, 95 degrees.

July total: Miami had its highest average monthly temperature, 85.1 degrees, breaking 1983's 85.0 degrees.

August:

July 23-Aug. 12: Fresno, Calif., had a record 21 consecutive days of 100-degree-plus weather.

Aug. 11-12: Hoonah, Alaska, had its hottest day ever each day, at 86 degrees.

Aug. 18: Highest recorded sea temperature for a New Jersey-Delaware buoy, at 84.7 degrees.

August total: Wichita, Kan., had its wettest August, with 11.96 inches of rain.

August total: Orlando, Fla., had its hottest August, averaging 85.1 degrees.

August total: West Palm Beach, Fla., tied its hottest August ever with an average temperature of 84.9 degrees.

September:

Sept. 23: Topeka, Kan., had its wettest day ever with 5.61 inches of rain, beating 1919's 5.23 inches.

Sept. 25: San Angelo, Texas, tied a September 1952 heat record of 107 degrees.

September total: Columbia, S.C., had its driest September ever, with just a trace of rain, less than 1985's 0.07 inches.

October:

Oct. 5: Jackson, Ky., had its warmest October day, 87 degrees.

Oct. 7: Columbia, S.C., tied its 1941 warmest low temperature of 74 degrees.

October total: Minneapolis-St. Paul airport had record October rainfall, 4.61 inches.

November:

Nov. 7: Joplin, Mo., tied its November 1980 high temperature, 83 degrees.

Nov. 26-28: Great Falls, Mont., had its heaviest snowstorm on record with 18.1 inches.

December:

Dec. 4: Little Rock, Ark., tied a December 1956 high of 80 degrees.

Yearly: The U.S. wildfire total is 8.64 million acres, beating 2000's 8.4 million acres.

SOURCES: National Climatic Data Center, National Interagency Fire Center.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Katrina, Rita, Wilma

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EXTREMEWEATHER

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051229 EXTREME WEATHER

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