, Volume 84, Issue 2, pp 131-139

Catastrophic winter storms: An escalating problem

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Abstract

Winter storms are a major weather problem in the USA and their losses have been rapidly increasing. A total of 202 catastrophic winter storms, each causing more than $1 million in damages, occurred during 1949–2003, and their losses totaled $35.2 billion (2003 dollars). Catastrophic winter storms occurred in most parts of the contiguous USA, but were concentrated in the eastern half of the nation where 88% of all storm losses occurred. They were most frequent in the Northeast climate district (95 storms), and were least frequent in the West district (14 catastrophic storms). The annual average number of storms is 3.7 with a 1-year high of 9 storms, and 1 year had no storms. Temporal distributions of storms and their losses exhibited considerable spatial variability across the nation. For example, when storms were very frequent in the Northeast, they were infrequent elsewhere, a result of spatial differences in storm-producing synoptic weather conditions over time. The time distribution of the nation’s 202 storms during 1949–2003 had a sizable downward trend, whereas the nation’s storm losses had a major upward trend for the 55-year period. This increase over time in losses, given the decrease in storm incidences, was a result of significant temporal increases in storm sizes and storm intensities. Increases in storm intensities were small in the northern sections of the nation, but doubled across the southern two-thirds of the nation, reflecting a climatic shift in conditions producing intense winter storms.