Top Weather and Climate Stories of 1998

January 6, 1999
D. Le Comte, Climate Prediction Center
Information compiled by Climate Prediction Center, Tropical Prediction Center, and National Climatic Data Center

United States


O The United States was warm and wet in 1998. Preliminary data indicate 1998 was in a virtual tie with 1934 as the warmest year since detailed records began in 1895. This was also the fifth wettest year on record. Heat was persistent and widespread during the year, with the country observing its 2nd warmest winter on record, 28th warmest spring, 9th warmest summer, and 2nd warmest autumn. Among the contiguous 48 states, only California was cooler than normal, due in part to an abnormally cool spring. The number five ranking for wetness was all the more remarkable given the severe spring-summer drought in the South. The drought, which is believed to have cost over $6 billion, followed the El Niño-related stormy winter on the West Coast and the Southeast, which caused well over $1.5 billion in damages. The seven tropical storms and hurricanes that struck the country may have cost the United States as much as $6.5 billion, but helped to relieve drought in the South. Though the abnormal weather contributed to a 28% drop in the nation's cotton crop and 21% drop in the orange crop compared with 1997, adequate rainfall and lack of sustained heat in the Corn Belt resulted in record soybean production and the second greatest corn output. Aided by El Niño-enhanced rains, the nation harvested its largest wheat crop since 1990.


O El Niño-related winter storms swept across California from December 1997 to March 1998, triggering floods, high winds, mudslides, and heavy mountain snows. Damage to property and crops totaled over $550 mil. and fatalities numbered 17. Most of the damage came from fierce storms in February, mainly during the first 10 days of the month. California winter (December-February) precipitation totaled 200 to 400% of normal, making this the state's seventh wettest winter in the past 103 years. February precipitation totals exceeded 15 inches in several locations, with the L.A. Civic Center's 13.68 inches breaking a February record that had stood since 1884. The Sierra Nevada amassed as much as 197 inches of snow during February, including 5 feet from one storm alone on February 2-4. March snow depths in the Sierra Nevada exceeded 20 feet. The heavy snow pack enhanced the state's water supplies.

O One of the worst ice storms on record struck upstate New York and northern New England during January 5-9, causing extensive damage to trees and powerlines. A 1- to 3-inch coating of ice left as many as 500,000 utility customers without power and made road travel nearly impossible. In Maine, four out of five residents lost electrical service. Overall damages approached $400 million, and 16 deaths were blamed on the storm. This was the worst ice storm to hit the country since February, 1994, when a Southeastern storm caused billions of dollars in damage.

O El Niño-related storms, floods, and tornadoes during winter-spring 1998 caused over $1 billion in damage and 132 deaths in the Southeast. Florida, where winter rainfall (Dec-Feb) averaged 19 inches or 220% of normal, recorded both its wettest winter and wettest November-March ever. Severe thunderstorms on February 2-3 featured 90-mph-plus wind gusts in the Miami area of Florida, leaving 220,000 utility customers without power. Florida also endured its deadliest tornado outbreak on record when storms on the night of February 22 killed 41people in the Kissimmee area and destroyed 800 residences.

O The second mildest winter in 103 years (Dec-Feb) of record saved consumers billions of dollars in heating costs while urban areas saved funds on snow-removal costs. Winter temperatures averaged more than 10F above normal over the North-Central states and more than 5F above normal from the Midwest through the Northeast.

O Spring and summer heat and drought across the South from Texas/Oklahoma eastward to the Carolinas caused over $6 billion in damages and costs and at least 200 deaths. April-June was the driest such period in 104 years of record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. May-June was the warmest such period on record in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Wildfires in Florida from late May to early July consumed nearly 500,000 acres of land and destroyed 356 structures, resulting in over $270 million in damages. Wildfires in Texas burned 143,000 acres in May-June, while the severe drought caused more than $2 billion in damage to agriculture, according to state officials. Wildfires across the southern U.S. burned 1.3 million acres during 1998, four times the acreage burned in 1997.

O A wet, stormy spring with numerous severe weather outbreaks broke rainfall records in the Midwest and Northeast and damaged crops in California. The West had its wettest May-June ever, and April-June was the wettest such period since at least 1895 in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the third wettest in Tennessee, and the fourth wettest in Iowa. Severe storms were rampant in spring, with a tornado outbreak taking 34 lives in Alabama on April 8. On May 30, a tornado destroyed Spencer, South Dakota, and claimed 6 lives. On June 7, a squall line packing 100-mph winds mowed down thousands of trees in southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin. The nation recorded 330 tornadoes (but only 3 deaths) in June, about 150 more than average. Although severe weather diminished after June, the preliminary national death toll during 1998 reached 129, about twice the number recorded in 1997 and three times the average.

O El Niño-related drought in Hawaii from autumn of 1997 to May 1998 resulted in water restrictions in several areas and diminished reservoir supplies. As of mid-June, Honolulu had measured only 1.76 inches of rain since January 1, just 16% of normal.

O Three hurricanes and four tropical storms hit the U.S. this year-more than twice the average--causing an estimated $6.5 billion in damage. Hurricane Bonnie struck the North Carolina coast on August 26, killing three, cutting off power to nearly a half-million people, and causing an estimated $720 million in direct damage (non-agricultural). Earl hit the Florida Panhandle on September 3, costing an estimated $79 million. Hurricane Georges may have caused over $3 billion in losses on Puerto Rico during September 21-22, damaging or destroying more than 170,000 homes before crossing Hispaniola and the Florida Keys and coming ashore near Biloxi, Mississippi on September 27. Up to 20 inches of rain deluged Puerto Rico as well as northwest Florida and southeastern Alabama. Hurricane Mitch, which caused over 9,000 deaths in Central America, crossed southern Florida as a tropical storm on November 4-5, bringing tornadoes, heavy rains, and flooding.

O Heavy rains from Tropical Storms Charley and Frances, along with several other weather systems, inundated eastern and southern Texas from August to November, ending drought over much of the state but causing severe flooding. Charley, which dropped a record 17.03 inches of rain on Del Rio during August 23, triggered flooding that took nine lives in Texas. Frances made landfall on September 11, bringing a 5-foot storm surge and over 2 feet of rain to coastal Texas. Another weather system brought over a foot of rain to southeast Texas on October 17-18, causing major flooding and at least 29 deaths. Raging floodwaters swept away or destroyed dozens of homes. Damage estimates reached $400 million. San Antonio tallied 18.07 inches of rain in October, its wettest month ever, including 11.26 inches on the 17th, its wettest day ever. Even more record rains hit south Texas in mid-November, with Victoria's 8.44 inches on November 12-14 setting three consecutive daily records.

O One of the most intense mid-latitude November storms ever observed crossed the Great Plains on the 10th, setting all-time low pressure readings in Iowa and Minnesota. The "super storm" brought 90-mph wind gusts to Wisconsin, over a foot of snow to the northern Plains, and 20-foot waves to Lake Michigan.

O Summer-autumn drought from the mid-Atlantic to Tennessee Valley damaged crops, increased wildfire risk, and threatened water supplies. July-November rainfall was the lowest since 1930 in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. Drought decimated crops in Maryland for the second consecutive year. Maryland, Tennessee, and Virginia posted their second, third, and fourth driest autumns in 104 years of record, respectively.

O Flooding drove thousands of residents to shelters after 10 inches of rain swamped south-central Kansas during October 30-November 1. A massive frontal system crossing the country just days later inundated Kansas City, Missouri with heavy rains, causing floods that took 12 lives.

O An unprecedented autumn "heat wave" from mid-November to early December broke or tied some 700 daily-high temperature records from the Rockies to the East Coast. The unseasonable warmth set over 70 monthly temperature records in the first 8 days of December alone, as temperatures rose to 20 to 30F or more above normal. Readings hit the 70s as far north as South Dakota and Maine. Washington, D.C. set an all-time December record on December 7 with a balmy 79F, the third monthly record set in 1 week. There and elsewhere, confused flowers started to blossom and trees bud.

O A series of Pacific storms slammed into the Northwest during November and early December, hurling 100-mph winds at the coast, knocking roofs off of buildings and cutting power to thousands of people. Heavy rains triggered floods in Washington and Oregon. Seattle, Washington set a November record with 11.62 inches of rain.


O One of the two strongest El Niño's of the century suddenly ended during spring--followed by La Niña. During the first half of the year, the El Niño contributed to heat and drought across Mexico and Central America, floods in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Paraguay, drought in northeast Brazil, and drought in Southeast Asia. The ending of El Niño allowed an abnormally active tropical storm season to develop in the Atlantic basin, with 14 named storms versus an average of 9. The La Niña contributed to abnormally heavy rains during the last half of the year in Australia and Indonesia.

O Assisted by the waning influence of El Niño, global surface temperatures in 1998 were the highest since surface observations began more than a century ago. This continued an upward trend in observed surface temperatures that fueled debate on the role of societal impacts on climate.

O Hurricane Mitch, the fourth strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, triggered massive flooding and landslides in Central America during late October that killed over 9,000 people, displaced another 2.4 million, and damaged or destroyed over 130,000 homes. Mitch may have been the deadliest Atlantic basin storm since 1780. The storm dropped over 2 feet (600 mm) of rain on northern Honduras, decimating the country's infrastructure. Mitch likely caused over $5 billion in damages to agriculture, buildings, and infrastructure in Honduras and Nicaragua alone, the two countries most affected. Guatemala and El Salvador also sustained major impacts from the storm, the most powerful October hurricane on record.

O Hurricane Georges devastated the northern Caribbean in late September, dumping up to 20 inches of rain, killing at least 500 people--mainly in the Dominican Republic--and causing billions of dollars in damage. Georges' heavy rains, high winds, and flooding damaged 85% of the houses on St. Kitts and Nevis, leaving nearly 10% of the population homeless, and costing $400 million in insured property losses. Georges left at least 100,000 people homeless in the Dominican Republic, but other estimates placed the number of homeless at 400,000 and those displaced at 865,000. Hundreds and perhaps thousands died in the Dominican Republic, where the storm destroyed 90% of all plantation crops. Damage to the power system alone totaled more than $1 billion, and estimated damage to the Dominican Republic's agriculture reached $260 million. Haiti reported 147 deaths and agricultural losses of $179 million. In Cuba, thousands of homes were lost and 200,000 people were evacuated.

O Summer floods in China killed over 3,000 people, as heavy rains inundated the south, the Yangtze River Valley, and the northeast. The floods left 14 million people homeless and may have caused $36 billion in damages. During June-July, locations near the Yangtze reported more than 30 inches (750 mm) of rain, with isolated amounts exceeding 50 inches (1,270 mm).

O Torrential rains struck South Korea twice within the first week of August, causing catastrophic flooding first in the south and then in the Seoul metropolitan area. The floods left at least 234 dead and 212,000 homeless, causing over $300 million in property damage. Monthly rainfall in Seoul totaled a phenomenal 49.25 inches (1,251 mm), 40.43 inches (1,027 mm) above normal.

O Heavy monsoon rains from June to August caused flooding in India and Bangladesh that took over 2,800 lives. Another 250 died in Nepal. In Bangladesh, three major floods occurred during July and August, leaving about 50% of the country under water for periods of up to 67 days at depths up to 10 feet (3 meters). In India, heavy monsoon rains in July and August flooded 12 states in the north, affecting over 23 million people and leaving up to 8 million homeless. Though Bangladesh suffered significant crop losses, food crop production in India declined only about 2% from the record levels set the year before.

O A May-June heat wave in India and Pakistan reportedly killed 2,500 people as temperatures soared to 122F (50C) and above.

O Periodic stifling heat affected the Middle East and Mediterranean region from June into September. Hot, dry weather helped to spread wildfires from Italy eastward to Lebanon and sent hundreds of people to hospitals. During the week ending July 4, temperatures averaged up to 14F (8C) above normal in the Mediterranean region, with highs reaching 104 to 113F (40-45C) in parts of Greece and southern Italy. Wildfires reportedly destroyed thousands of acres of forest around Athens, Greece.

O Drought contributed to a rash of wildfires that burned more than 1.25 mil. acres (500,000 hectares) in Mexico and Central America from January to June. Smoke from the fires cast a pall over much of the region and spread northward into the United States.

O Abnormal warmth and dryness in Brazil encouraged the spread of thousands of wildfires during 1998. Three large areas experienced fire outbreaks during the year: the northern Amazon region of Brazil, where February-March rainfall totaled less than 50% of normal; northeast Brazil, which was abnormally dry during the first half of the year; and southwestern Brazil (and northeastern Bolivia) from June through September. By September 1, one huge fire in the central Brazilian region of Mato Grosso had burned more than 3,200 square kilometers of pastures and forests. Numerous fires were still burning in the northeast at the end of the year. During June through August, the country reportedly experienced 30% more fires than during the same period one year earlier.

O El Niño-related floods and landslides in Peru and Ecuador caused over $3 billion dollars in damage from November 1997 to May 1998. February rainfall alone totaled over 28 inches (700 mm) along Peru's northwest coast. The town of Tumbes, in northwest Peru measured over 82 inches (2,100 mm) from December to May, or more than 10 times normal. In Ecuador, flooding and landslides killed at least 251 people and cost about $2 billion in damage. Crop production declined by as much as 75% from the previous year's levels. In Peru, storms left 234,000 homeless, destroyed or damaged at least 50,000 homes, and killed over 300 people. Damage costs reached $1.5 billion.

O Floods from heavy rains in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay displaced over 170,000 people from December 1997 to May 1998. April rainfall alone in southern Paraguay and northeast Argentina totaled 16 inches (400 mm). The Parana River inundated vast areas of Paraguay in May, killing 55 and forcing approximately 75,000 from their homes. Damage estimates ranged into the billions of dollars. Heavy rains in April caused major flooding in northeastern Argentina, forcing the evacuation of 85,000 people. Floodwaters reportedly covered 23,000 square miles (60,000 square km). Damage estimates from the heavy rains and flooding exceeded $2 billion in Argentina. Uruguay and southern Brazil also sustained flooding, with over 10,000 people in Uruguay forced to flee their homes.

O Canada's worst ice storm in modern times left over 1 million households without power and caused over $1 billion in economic losses during January 5-9. Quebec endured most of the damage from the storm, which left some homes without power for an entire month.

O El Niño-related drought contributed to fires, crop losses, and food shortages in Southeast Asia from January to May. Fires in Indonesia this year burned 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares). This was in addition to the 12 million acres (5 million hectares) burned during the drought in 1997. Fire pollution costs in Southeast Asia resulting from the drought in 1997 have been estimated at $1.3 billion. Damage and costs from the 1998 fires should be less but also considerable.

O Severe spring flooding in northern Siberia in Russia forced over 51,000 residents from their homes. Rivers began overflowing in mid-May and reached their highest levels in 70 years in the following weeks. A sudden rise in temperature and a rapid snow melt caused huge ice jams to build up, bringing unprecedented flooding to the Lena River and its tributaries in the northeastern Republic of Sakha.

O Heat and dryness across a large part of Asia from June to August cut crop production and aided the spread of wildfires. Insufficient moisture contributed to Russia's cereal crop production dropping 42% from the previous year. Ukraine production fell 20% and Kazakhstan lost 40%. Numerous wildfires spread across eastern Siberia, including Sakhalin island, from May to October. Before rain quenched most of the fires in mid-October, over 1,300 fires had burned about 5 million acres (2 million hectares). Smoke from the fires, which affected over 1 million people, travelled all the way to Canada. The Russian Far East lost about 15 million cubic meters of timber, or about three times its annual production.

O Torrential rains in September caused floods and landslides that cut off 400,000 people in Mexico's Chiapas state. Over 16 inches (400 mm) of rain fell in 1 week.

O Major flooding in Sudan during September reportedly affected 300,000 people. A delayed start to the rainy season in the south aggravated crop losses in a region already suffering from famine. In May, a premature end to the seasonal rains in Somalia worsened food shortages resulting from armed conflict and the El Niño-related flooding late in 1997. Flooding hit a number of countries in the Sahel this summer, but the ample rainfall produced favorable harvests, with Chad, Niger, and Mali collecting record crops.

O Typhoons Zeb and Babs crossed the northern Philippines in October, causing over 200 deaths. Supertyphoon Zeb left as much as 24 inches (600 mm) of rain in the northern Philippines on October 13-14 before striking Taiwan and Japan. The storm reportedly took 74 lives in the Philippines, 31 in Taiwan, and 12 in Japan. Only 8 days later, Supertyphoon Babs crossed the Philippines, submerging parts of Manila, taking 132 lives, and forcing more than 320,000 people from their homes.

O An Arabian Sea tropical cyclone struck northwest India on June 9, taking over 900 lives.

O In Vietnam, five tropical storms caused destruction from mid-November to mid-December. A trio of tropical cyclones (Chip, Dawn, and Elvis) caused heavy rains and flooding in Vietnam during a 2-week period in November, killing at least 267 people, destroying over 9,000 houses, and damaging 470,000 more. Reported losses were $48 million. Still a fourth tropical storm, Faith, struck the central Vietnamese coast on December 13 in the same area hit by the first three storms, and Tropical Storm Gil caused severe damage in the Mekong Delta on December 11.

O Severe cold and snowstorms from mid-November to early December spread across Russia and Europe, contributing to 180 deaths. In Moscow, temperatures from November 10 to December 1 averaged just 10F (-12C), or 18F (10C) below normal. On December 1, readings dipped to -10F (-24C). At the same time the frigid air mass stretched across the Eurasian continent, record heat was covering much of the North American continent on the other side of the world.

O Canada recorded its warmest year since records began in 1948 with the temperature 2.4C above normal, based on data through November. Six of 11 months set new temperature records and another two were second warmest. All 11 months were warmer than normal. It was also the ninth driest year. Lack of moisture and the record-breaking temperatures resulted in extreme fire severity. The 1998 fire season ended with approximately 10,600 fires consuming a total of 11.4 million acres (4.6 million hectares) of forested land. The number of acres burned was about 60% greater than average, making this the fifth worst year on record.
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