Raleigh, N.C. — After this year’s frigid cold, sweltering heat wave, historic tornado outbreak and hurricane flooding, North Carolina’s extreme weather has some asking, “What’s next?”
More than 25 tornadoes touched down dozens of times in 33 North Carolina counties on April 16. Twenty-four people were killed, hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands were damaged.
July 24 marked the fifth day day in a row with 100-degree temperatures at Raleigh Durham International Airport, setting an all-time record. The high temperature in Raleigh hit 101 degrees on July 24, also beating a record for the date, which was set last year at 100 degrees.
Hurricane Irene swept up the North Carolina coast Aug. 27, leaving homes flooded, roads washed out and businesses damaged along the shorelines of ocean and sound.
North Carolina’s spot on the map makes just about any weather event possible. It's one of three states, along with South Carolina and Georgia, bordered by warm water on one side and a major mountain range on the other. The result is weather that amazes everyone from children to seasoned meteorologists.
"When I first moved here, I was scared to death it was going to be a boring climate, and I found out just within a matter of days that I misjudged that grossly,” said WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel. “The number of things I’ve seen in the three decades I’ve been here run the gamut from one extreme to the other."
Fishel also remembers 1977, before he came to WRAL, when the winter was so cold it froze portions of the Albemarle Sound, a phenomenon unprecedented in modern history, he said. That was followed by a "vicious summer, in terms of heat," he said.
However, 2011 has proven to be one of the most extreme weather years on record, and not just in North Carolina. Texas suffered the worst drought in its history, the Mississippi River produced record floods and Missouri and Alabama experienced fatal tornado outbreaks of their own.
State climatologist Ryan Boyles says records show North Carolina went through a similar period of severe weather in the 1950s.
“This is the combination of everything that you can expect in a nine-month period. It’s pretty unusual,” he said. “But even beyond that, there’s maybe something else going on that we don’t quite understand.”
Boyles says the combination of extremes so close together makes it even more unusual – the 14th coldest winter on record at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, followed by the seventh warmest spring and then the second hottest summer.
Those types of extremes “may be unprecedented in our historical record,” according to Boyles.
“That’s one of the things we’re really trying to understand. What are the things that cause that? We don’t entirely understand all of it or we’d be able to predict it better, but we’re getting there,” he said.
Some say it could be climate change, the El Niño/La Niña phenomenon, urbanization or simply the increased paving of asphalt on North Carolina roads and other areas, which changes the way the state heats up.
Fishel says there is no easy answer to explain North Carolina’s weather this year. In his time at WRAL News, he has experienced "some pretty amazing occurrences" – a large tornado outbreak in March 1984, 9-below-zero temperatures breaking an all-time cold record in 1985, a Raleigh tornado in 1988 and a rash of hurricanes in the mid-90s.
This year's extreme weather has some questioning what the future holds.
“What’s going to be next?" asked Alix Jones, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Like volcanoes, blizzards, something like that?”