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Midwestern Regional Climate Center

Illinois State Water Survey, Champaign, IL

Michael A. Palecki
Stanley A. Changnon
Steven D. Hilberg
December 15, 1998

Summary of Major Climate Events During 1998, Midwestern United States


Stanley A. Changnon and Steven D. Hilberg

Midwestern Climate Center

The development of El Nino during the summer of 1997 brought forth long-range predictions of stormy and wet weather with major negative outcomes expected in the West, South, and Southeast. The predictions correctly called for mild and dry conditions in the northern states with little attention given to the impacts apt to occur. The Midwest experienced near record warmth during the cold season (November - April) with near normal precipitation but below normal snowfall. The winter of 1997-98 (December - February) ranked as the region's warmest in 103 years with temperatures 8.3 degrees F above normal (Figure 1), and the region's 41st wettest with precipitation 0.47 inches above normal (Figure 2). Snowfall in the Midwest was 5.5 inches below average, or about 87% of normal conditions (Figure 3). The pattern of snowfall departures from normal (Figure 4) indicates that the largest percentage reductions in seasonal snowfall were found in an area from northeastern Indiana through northern Ohio, where generally less than 50 percent of the average snowfall occurred. Lower Michigan and Ohio received only 60 to 65 percent of the average snowfall, the lowest statewide values of the nine Midwestern states. Snowfall deficits exceeded 20 inches from Lake Superior across the northern Upper Peninsula of Michigan south through western lower Michigan, and in the eastern half of Ohio. Above normal snowfall amounts were noted in much of Iowa and southwestern Minnesota, central Wisconsin northeastward into the southern Upper Peninsula, and in Kentucky.

Mean Temperature for the Midwest from December 1997 to February 1998 compared to the long term average
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Mean Precipitation for the Midwest from December 1997 to February 1998 compared to the long term average
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Data compiled from 37 stations in the midwest with long term snowfall record
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Differences between the 1997-1998 snowfall and average annual snowfall for 34 winters

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These untypical conditions across the Midwest created an interesting array of impacts, and most were beneficial. The recreation industry had winners and losers, but in general, the public, many businesses, and federal, state and local government agencies were major winners. Some benefitted from using the seasonal weather predictions to alter their normal operational plans, and most Midwesterners benefitted health-wise and financially from the mild winter and spring weather conditions.

The population of the 9-state Midwest is 60 million, and it is safe to conclude based on numerous samplings of public attitudes that most residents were pleased with the mild, almost snow-free winter. It was much safer and healthier than a normal winter. There was much less illness and many fewer deaths than occur in a normal winter as a result of cold temperatures and accidents caused by dangerous travel conditions. Medical and travel experts concluded that the winter conditions led to saving of between 350 and 380 lives. Many residents of the Midwest altered their recreation plans and many used the mild weather to fish, play golf, and hike.

Those benefitting in business included commodity brokers who realized increased investments resulting from buyers who feared El Nino-driven damages to foods grown in the U.S. and elsewhere. Insurers sold more policies and realized fewer than normal claims and losses paid. The construction industry enjoyed more favorable work conditions and the region's income for construction was up $300 million over normal winters. Employment in retail firms and construction was up 4 to 5%. Home sales soared, being 25% higher for December 1997-March 1998 than in normal conditions, and this additional income represented a gain of $0.6 billion. All forms of transportation and shippers benefitted from better weather than usual, resulting in savings and added profits of $100 million.

The mild weather with below normal snowfall made it nice to be outdoors and this led to major increases in retail sales of clothing, furniture and other goods. The added sales reached $2.9 billion over the average December-March period sales. Restaurants reported increased business but no estimates of the increased income is available. The near record warmth in the Midwest reduced heating costs, creating consumer savings amounting to $4.7 billion. The local and state government agencies saved $250 million due to reduced costs related to less winter care of roadways. Airlines reported more travelers than normal and fewer delays due to improved weather, but no measure of the benefits is available. In sum, the known financial benefits from the winter-early spring weather in the Midwest amount to $8.85 billion, and this does not include additional but unknown income in several sectors. Reported environmental impacts were not significant although little information is available.

Those who lost as a result of the El Nino conditions in the Midwest included those who failed to use the predictions of a mild winter and those who were hurt by the untypical weather conditions. Several natural gas providers failed to heed the long-range weather predictions and bought gas early in the fall at high prices. These higher costs were largely transferred to their customers who failed to realize all the benefits that later, lower cost purchases would have produced. From a health standpoint, the unusual winter weather conditions resulted in nine deaths in the Midwest. Certain businesses suffered including manufacturers and sellers of snow mobiles ($10 million in lost sales), and manufacturers of snow removal equipment (lost $22 million). Private snow removal firms lost $26 million in expected income, towing firms lost $16 million, and sellers of salt reported diminished sales and losses of $68 million. Business at Midwestern ski resorts was down 50% and losses were $120 million. Furnace manufacturers and sales firms reported losses of $300 million. Retail sales of winter clothing including fur coats was down 15% and this represented losses of $180 million.

The total estimated losses in the Midwest amounted to $750 million. The losses were approximately 10 percent of the total benefits of $8.85 billion (Figure 5). A similar beneficial relationship existed in human life counts with 350 to 380 lives saved by the winter conditions and only 9 lives lost due to El Nino conditions.

Estimated Economic Impacts of the 1997-1998 El Nino on the Midwest
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Michael A. Palecki and Stanley A. Changnon
Midwestern Climate Center

The period of the last 12 months has proven to be unusually beneficial to the Midwest. Tremendous savings in household energy usage and expanded retail sales were experienced in the winter, spring and fall periods. The combined effect of these warm seasons has allowed the Midwest to set the record for highest mean temperature in 103 years for the December to November climatological year, with the 12 month period being 3.7 degrees F above normal (Table 1).

 Table 1.  Seasonal temperature and precipitation departures for the Midwest, December 1997 to November 1998.  The asterisk * indicates all-time records.  Time Period            Midwest Temp Dep./Rank     Midwest Precip Dep./Rank --------------------   ----------------------     ------------------------ Dec 1997 to Feb 1998   +8.3 deg F / 103 of 103*   +0.47 in. / 63 of 103 Mar 1998 to May 1998   +2.4 deg F / 94 of 104     +1.57 in. / 87 of 104 Jun 1998 to Aug 1998   +0.5 deg F / 58 of 104     +2.20 in. / 95 of 104 Sep 1998 to Nov 1998   +3.4 deg F / 102 of 104    -0.17 in. / 62 of 104 Dec 1997 to Nov 1998   +3.7 deg F / 103 of 103*   +4.05 in. / 94 of 103 

The El Nino influenced winter of 1997-1998 also set a record for the highest mean temperature in 103 years, 8.3 degrees F above normal, as did the individual states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan (Figure 1). The fall 1998 season came very close to setting records, with the Midwest experiencing the 3rd warmest fall on record, 3.4 degrees F above normal (Figure 2). Fortunately, these record and near-record setting temperatures took a hiatus during the middle of the growing season, which was mild in temperature and received a favorable distribution of rain. This outcome was indeed fortuitous, given that the total amount of rain provided the 10th wettest December to November on record in the Midwest.

Winter 1997-1998 Temperature Anomalies
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Fall 1998 Temperature Anomalies
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The Midwestern growing season from planting to harvesting is quite long, lasting from early April into early November. The length of this period allows for a number of potential weather extremes to occur and detrimentally affect the corn and soybean yields. Seldom does a season occur without some form of untimely freeze, major damaging storms, dry periods, or a heat wave. The 1998 season was no exception. It began with excessive rainfall lasting from late April into June. In fact, June was the wettest month in the Midwest in the entire 104 year climate record, with a regional average 2.70 inches above normal.
The key for agriculture was that, unlike June 1993, the precipitation was spread fairly uniformly across the entire Midwest (Figure 3), so most individual places did not experience serious waterlogging in the fields. In addition, there was a two week break from heavy rain in mid-May, along with well above normal temperatures that dried fields and allowed farmers to plant their crops. June 1998 Precipitation Anomalies
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Graph of 1998 Growing Season in Illinois
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A time series of the growing season temperature and precipitation anomalies in Illinois illustrates the excellent timing of this break in precipitation relative to the corn planting season in 1998. The rains stopped in late June, just in time for the critical silking stage in corn growth. Amazingly, the drier conditions were accompanied by near normal temperatures with a lack of hot days greater than 90 degrees F. This combination of abundant soil moisture, little rain, and lack of excessive heat in July is ideal for corn development.

Later in the growing season, it turned quite dry and warm, but the abundant soil moisture storage from earlier in the season carried most crops through to good final yields. In fact, September dryness led to early maturation and good field conditions for harvesting corn, although the dryness did decrease some soybean yields. A few exceptions to the generally fine growing season occurred. The late summer dryness affected Michigan especially since it did not have a wet June like the rest of the Midwest (Figure 3). Missouri had some crop losses due to a series of tremendous rain events in June and in August; the August storms also packed a windy wallop that caused crop damage throughout the Midwest in isolated pockets. On November 10, a cyclonic storm with record low pressure caused wind damage to any corn that had not been harvested by that date.

Corn yields in the Midwest for 1998 are estimated as of November 1 to be very high, with most of the Corn Belt in the Midwest experiencing yields 10 to 20 bushels/acre above the latest five year average (Figure 5). Minnesota and Ohio set records for yield, while even the states with poorer performance are only slightly below the five year average in yield. Accounting for all significant corn producing states, including those outside the U.S., the national yield estimate is 133.3 bushels/acre, which is the 2nd highest ever. Soybean yields in the Midwest for 1998 are well above normal to the north and somewhat below normal to the south (Figure 6). Minnesota and Wisconsin set all time records, and most of the highly productive soybean states were 2 to 5 bushels/acre above the most recent five year average. Yields were generally less than 1997, however, as the late season dryness did reduce yields a bit below their potential. Still, the national yield estimate of 38.6 bushels/acre is the 3rd highest ever.

Corn Yields for 1998
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Soybean Yields for 1998
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Summary: The growing season of 1998 was very successful from a climatic perspective. Early season wetness was interrupted by a short dry period at the most critical planting time. Record June rains let-up just prior to an important growth stage of corn, i.e., silking. The silking of the corn occurred during a period of time with the unusual combination of dry mid-summer weather without excessive heat. The abundant soil moisture from early in the season was sufficient to last crops through a late season dry and warm spell, which allowed crops to mature early with fine yields. The harvest season started early, with adequate numbers of quality work days. Despite record warmth and the 10th wettest precipitation total for the period December 1997 to November 1998, crop yields were abundant due to the fortuitous timing of climate anomalies in the Midwest relative to crop stages.

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