Natural Disasters

Floods, tornadoes, landslides: This January was the 6th-warmest on record for United States

From the end of December to January 17, there were 700 landslides in western US

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Thursday 09 February 2023

The United States witnessed an unusual January, characterised by colder-than-normal conditions with rain and ice in the south, warmer-than-normal conditions in the north and record-breaking rains and floods in the west. 

Overall, it was the sixth-warmest January on record for the country, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The new year started off on a wet note for western US, especially California, as the atmospheric rivers that had formed in the last week of December continued to pour rain and snow, causing flash floods and mudslides for three weeks. 

Nine such atmospheric rivers affected the region from the end of December to January 17. There were 700 landslides in this period. For the San Francisco Bay Area, this three-week period was the wettest in the last 161 years. 

An atmospheric river is a relatively long and narrow region in the atmosphere — like a river in the sky — that transports most of the water vapour outside of the tropics, according to NOAA. 

In California, 21 people died of storm-related incidents, reported NOAA. Private weather forecasting agency AccuWeather estimated initial damages of $31-34 billion from the floods. 

Climate change-fuelled atmospheric rivers in the future can cause damages worth $2.3 billion in the western US by the end of the century, which is almost triple the damages right now, a research paper published in the journal Nature in August 2022 showed.

Climate models also show that the atmospheric rivers are becoming more intense and frequent in the region. 

From January 2-4, at least 61 tornadoes hit the southern plains, southeastern region and Illinois, bringing thunderstorms and hail.

In the second week of January, the tornadoes shifted towards the midwest, while continuing their impact on the southeast. On January 12, NOAA confirmed the occurrence of 69 tornadoes in the two regions. 

On January 16, two tornadoes affected Iowa state. These were the first tornadoes recorded in January in the state in the past 55 years. 

Throughout the month, there was record warmth in northeastern US, where Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont each had their warmest Januaries on record, according to NOAA. Alaska was also warmer than normal with the city of Anchorage recording its warmest January.

Towards the end of the month, a strong low-pressure area affected Haiti and caused floods and landslides in the region, especially the islands of Maui and Molokai. 

Around the same time, a rain and ice-carrying system brought severe weather to the southern plains, where 50 million people were under threat, according to NOAA. 

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