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Extreme global weather may be the new norm

MARSHALL, Okla. — Oklahomans are accustomed to cruel climate. Frigid winters and searing summers are often made more unbearable by scouring winds. But even by Oklahoma standards, it's been a year of whipsaw weather.

February was so cold — with the wind chill it felt like 16 below — that Tim Gillard installed a door in the long hallway of his home in the small farming town of Marshall, walling off three rooms to more affordably heat the rest of the house. Now, in this summer's unrelenting heat, his family huddles in the air conditioning behind that same door.

The Gillards' respite ended this month when a windstorm knocked out the town's electricity. That sent many of Marshall's 290 beleaguered residents out to their porches at night to sleep, cooler than inside but still sweltering. In July, Oklahoma's average statewide temperature of 89 was the highest ever recorded for any state.

Oklahoma's misery has been writ large across the country this year, which federal climate scientists have labeled one of worst in American history for extreme weather. With punishing blizzards, epic flooding, devastating drought, a sea of hurricanes and a heat wave that has broiled a huge swath of the country, the U.S.'s weather in 2011 has been unrelenting and extraordinary.

In addition to hundreds of deaths from cold and heat and tornadoes, the national economic toll for extreme weather so far this year is estimated at $35 billion, more than five times the average annual loss.

And, climatologists warn, get used to it.

The year has been so wild that Gary McManus has given up keeping track of the weather records set in Oklahoma. Begrudgingly, McManus, the associate state climatologist, briskly rattled off a few:

  • The all-time low temperature (31 degrees below zero).
  • Greatest 24-hour snowfall total (27 inches).
  • Most tornadoes in one month (50 in April).

There's been no measurable rain in the western half of the state since October.

The 11-month period ending in August was the driest such period statewide since records were first kept in 1895.

McManus said this year's back-to-back weather calamities were "out of the realm of your imagining. It's not just that temperatures are above normal, it's that it's above normal for so many months in a row."