Weather Gone Wild
Rains that are almost biblical, heat waves that don’t end, tornadoes that strike in savage swarms—there’s been a change in the weather lately. What’s going on?
Photograph by Sean R. Heavey, Barcroft Media/Landov
The weekend forecast for Nashville, Tennessee, called for two to four inches of rain. But by the afternoon of Saturday, May 1, 2010, parts of the city had seen more than six inches, and the rain was still coming down in sheets.
Mayor Karl Dean was in the city’s Emergency Communications Center monitoring the first reports of flash flooding when something on a TV screen caught his eye. It was a live shot of cars and trucks on Interstate 24 being swamped by a tributary of the Cumberland River southeast of the city. Floating past them in the slow lane was a 40-foot-long portable building from the Lighthouse Christian School.
“We’ve got a building running into cars,” the TV anchorman was saying.
Dean had been in the “war room” for hours. But when he saw the building floating down the highway, he says, “it became very clear to me what an extreme situation we had on our hands.” Soon 911 calls were coming in from every part of the city. Police, fire, and rescue teams were dispatched in boats. One crew in a skiff headed out to I-24 to pluck the driver of an 18-wheeler from the chest-high water. Other teams pulled families off rooftops and workers from flooded warehouses. Still, 11 people died in the city that weekend.
Panorama composed of four images; Sean R. Heavey, Barcroft Media/Landov
A deluge falls from the core of a thunderstorm near Glasgow in July 2010. “I felt like if you could stand in the middle and look up, you'd see straight into the heavens,” says photographer Sean Heavey.
Photograph by Daniel Bryant
The biggest dust storm in living memory rolls into Phoenix on July 5, 2011, reducing visibility to zero. Desert thunderstorms kicked up the mile-high wall of dust and sand.
Photograph by Larry W. Smith, European Pressphoto Agency/Landov
A flaming fence post marks the trail of a forest fire near Bastrop on September 5, 2011, during a record drought and heat wave. The fire, which destroyed 1,685 houses, may have been sparked by dead pine trees falling onto power lines.
Photograph by Martial Trezzini, European Pressphoto Agency/Landov
Frozen spray from Lake Geneva entombs cars, trees, and a promenade during a severe cold spell in February 2012. An unusual dip in the polar jet stream, which looped as far south as Africa, brought Arctic air and deep snows to Europe, killing several hundred people.
Photograph by Rick Murray
Jamey Howell and Andrea Silvia had just heard that church was canceled when the flood submerged their Jeep near Nashville on May 2, 2010. The teenagers clung to the roof rack for more than an hour and then—as their parents watched helplessly—let go. A mile downstream they struggled onto a riverbank, alive.
Photograph by Scott Olson, Getty Images
Fortified by a levee, a house near Vicksburg survives a Yazoo River flood in May 2011. Snowmelt and intense rains—eight times as much rainfall as usual in parts of the Mississippi River watershed—triggered floods that caused three to four billion dollars in damages.
Photograph by Digitalglobe
On April 27, 2011, the U.S. was hit by 199 tornadoes, a single-day record—but there's no clear evidence, scientists say, of a long-term rise in tornado frequency. The 190-mile-an-hour twister that carved a sharp path across Tuscaloosa missed the University of Alabama football stadium (upper left) by a mile, then threaded between a large mall (X-shaped building at center) and the main hospital, which was soon treating victims. The tornado killed 44, then roared northeast to the Birmingham area, where it killed 20 more.
Photograph by Mike Hollingshead
“It was really cranking,” photographer Mike Hollingshead says of this 130-mile-an-hour twister. But to him, that was not a clue to run the other way. A dedicated storm chaser, he shot this funnel on June 20, 2011, outside Bradshaw, where it derailed freight-train cars.
Photograph by China Daily/Reuters
Rainwater cascades onto a Chengdu resident rushing up a flight of stairs from an underground garage. An unusually severe downpour on July 3, 2011, flooded streets and knocked out electricity in the city, which is the capital of Sichuan Province in central China.
The public swimming pool in Spur, a little town in West Texas, was originally closed because of leaks—but with the drought making water so scarce lately, there has been no rush to repair the pool and refill it. It has been empty for four summers now.
Tumbleweeds catch in the furrows of an unplanted cotton field near Brownfield, southwest of Lubbock. High winds and a record-breaking heat wave led to damaging erosion, says Buzz Cooper, who runs a cotton gin nearby. “It was just like a hot fan in an oven,” he says.
The wildfire near Bastrop, Texas, on September 5, 2011, was so hot it melted the aluminum wheels of this boat trailer. Fanned by high winds, the fire spread rapidly. “People had literally five or ten minutes to get out,” says Jack Page, fire marshal of nearby Smithville. “There were a couple of times we didn't think we would make it.”
Since the drought started almost two years ago, Mark Meyers has taken in more than 800 donkeys at the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, a shelter he and his wife, Amy, run near San Angelo, Texas. “With hay prices up to four times as much as usual, people could not afford to feed their donkeys,” he says. “So they abandoned them.” Meyers rounds up the strays with the help of Bonney and two other dogs.
White lines on the hillside (right) record the normal water level of the E. V. Spence Reservoir near the town of Robert Lee, Texas. During the prolonged drought the reservoir has dropped by more than 99 percent, and towns that depend on it have had to scramble to find other water sources—drilling wells, building pipelines, or simply trucking in the water.