The last five years of weather in the Chattanooga region has been a roller coaster ride of extremes, ranging from record heat, deadly cold, drought and wildfires to record rain and lethal flooding, with a little ice and snow thrown in for good measure.
Record rainfall last month notched the second-wettest February on the books, bumping a soggy February 2019 down one spot, according to WRCB-TV Channel 3 Chief Meteorologist Paul Barys.
"Everything in weather is a pattern. But patterns that truly impact weather for the long term are not those shown on weather maps for the next day's forecast," he said. "The average person doesn't realize the complexity of the weather."
Barys said weather patterns that cause long-term effects develop in the upper atmosphere and in other areas of the globe.
Forecasters look into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and even the Indian Ocean for the patterns that cause change elsewhere, he said. Winds in the upper atmosphere have an up-and-down movement and a pattern that causes heavy rain, while leading to more heavy rainfall over a long period, he said.
"Remember a few years ago we had the drought," Barys said. "That drought was a pattern that had all the rain very, very far away from us. Other places got really, really wet, but we didn't."
Most people have short-term weather memories and don't take into account much larger, longer-lasting patterns that can linger for months or even years, he said, noting weather patterns of the 1970s and 1980s when it could get much colder, and more frequently.
Weather over the last five years has been a demonstration of those kinds of patterns, he said.
CHATTANOOGA WEATHER RECORDS
National Weather Service climatological data lists Chattanooga area weather extremes recorded since 1879.
Highest temperature/107F/July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2012
Lowest temperature/-10F/Jan. 21, 1985, Jan. 31, 1966, and Feb. 13, 1899
Highest rainfall total in one day/9.49 inches/Sept. 5, 2011
Highest rainfall total in one month/20 inches/March 31, 1993
Highest rainfall total in one year/73.70 inches/1994
Most snow in one day/18.5 inches/March 13, 1993
Most snow in one month/20 inches/March 31, 1993
Most snow in one season (Dec.-Feb.)/22.2 inches/1917-1918
Most snow in one year/22.7/1992-1993
Source: National Weather Service Chattanooga Climate Page
The year 2015 was the wettest of the last five years, and a low of 8 degrees in February was the lowest mark for that month in the last five years. On Feb. 18, 2015, an 85-year-old military veteran was found dead of hypothermia in his Sequatchie County home.
"A winter storm tracked through area on the 16-17th with the atmosphere favorable for both heavy snow and ice accretion," National Weather Service meteorologist David Hotz said this week via email. "The highest peaks had up to 6 inches of snow while ice accumulations had up to an inch."
Hotz, who works at the National Weather Service office in Morristown, Tennessee, used data from the National Centers for Environmental Information to review the Chattanooga region's weather past.
"In addition, cold weather accounted for three deaths; [a] 63-year-old man in Hamilton County, a 44-year-old man in Roane County and an 85-year-old man in Sequatchie County," Hotz said.
On Feb. 26 that year, the region got more than 6 inches of snow for total accumulations for the month of 8.8 inches, National Weather Service records and archives show. A total of 9.5 inches of snow for the year has been the high mark since 2015.
Meanwhile, a 66.78-inch rainfall total for the year nearly threatened the most recent annual record set in 2013 of 68.76 inches.
On an unseasonably warm, 74-degree Christmas Day, 3.85 inches of rain fell, nearly doubling the previous record rainfall set in 1973 of 2.01 inches, newspaper archives show.
"Heavy rain falling upon nearly saturated soils resulted in widespread flooding," Hotz said.
For weather variations, 2016 was a model of extremes, with a wet start to a year that finished as one of the all-time driest.
In the first three months of 2016, the Chattanooga region got only a few dustings of snow, though predictions had been higher in late January when Winter Storm Jonas clipped the city on Jan. 23, leaving behind little accumulations here en route to dumping blizzard proportions of snow up the East Coast.
It was rainy through spring 2016, with weather service records showing 14.38 inches falling from January to March and rain swelling the Tennessee River near the start of the year so much that barge traffic was stalled.
But then the clouds dried up with the end of spring and rain became a rarity.
Only 4 inches or so of rain fell between April and June, and by July the region was experiencing extreme drought conditions, with little hope of precipitation in the forecasts. Highs hit 99 in June and 100 in July as the earth across the South started to become crispy. Although there was a total of 2.5 inches of rain that July, precipitation couldn't regain lost ground.
Records show 2.38 inches fell in August 2016, then only 1.63 inches in September, while October saw only .08 of an inch of rain, leaving the region dry and cracked going into fall. It was dry in late October in Northeast Alabama, while the Little River atop Lookout Mountain near Fort Payne ran dry, exposing kayaking hazards park officials fixed while they had the chance.
Dry conditions in summer 2016 also turned region woodlands into kindling by the time a parched October — the all-time driest October on record for the region — was halfway through. Wildfires spread, well, like wildfire, with acres of trees going up in flames on Walden's Ridge and all across the region. More than 50 forest fires were active in Tennessee in mid-November 2016, but that number dwindled to five by early December.
The storms that brought some relief from the drought, however, also brought tornadoes, according to Hotz.
"Several strong tornadoes move across the southern Plateau and southeast Tennessee," he said. Three EF2 tornadoes and one EF3 tornado were reported, including one that struck Franklin, Coffee and Grundy counties on Nov. 6.
The rain that finally returned to the region in the fall of 2017 was too little, too late for the season for most farmers who'd seen their fields turn to dust over the summer. On the other hand, the return of rains that weather service records show dropped more than 10 inches on the region in late November and December 2016 snuffed out the wildfires, although a burn ban remained in place for half the month of December.
Just 35.58 inches of rain fell in the region in 2016, well short of the annual average of 54.48 inches.
While 2017 had far more precipitation, rebounding by more than 20 inches over 2016 for the year, almost none of it was in frozen form. A mild winter included a spring-like high of 73 on Jan. 15 that year that tied the record set in 1907. The remarkable weather in 2017 mostly came in the form of rain, which totaled 58.48 inches for the year — exactly 4 inches above the annual average — and storm damage west of the city in March.
"A well developed upper level trough moved from the Eastern Plains to the Eastern Seaboard with an associated strong low pressure system and cold front," Hotz said of weather moving through on March 1, 2017.
"A squall line formed ahead of the front and swept across the Southern Appalachian region from mid morning through the mid afternoon hours. Several reports of straight line wind damage were received during the event along with limited reports of large hail," Hotz said. "Most of the damage was on the Cumberland Plateau and across Southeast Tennessee with more isolated damage reported in Southwest Virginia and Southwest North Carolina. Golf ball-size hail and wind damage was reported in Hamilton County."
In April 2017, a whopping 10.43 inches of rain fell for a five-year high mark for the month, quenching the 2016's lingering drought and forcing school delays and the closure of the Tennessee Riverpark. That was followed in May by almost 6 inches of rain and, as summer kicked in, two more five-year precipitation highs in June of 4.48 inches and in July of 6.96 inches, weather service records show.
The summer of 2017 ended relatively dry with TVA reservoir levels unexpectedly low in anticipation of an incoming tropical storm that spared the Tennessee Valley. After a near-normal rain in August and September, October got about double the normal amount of precipitation at just more than 6 inches, records show. September also included a windy visit from the remnants of Hurricane Irma, which felled trees and downed power lines across the region.
20% chance of precipitation
High: 49 | Low: 32
High: 62 | Low: 32
40% chance of showers
High: 59 | Low: 45
50% chance of showers
High: 66 | Low: 54
80% chance of showers
High: 59 | Low: 53
Source: WRCB-TV Channel 3
In 2018, a low of 8 degrees marked the five-year low temperature in the region for January, but temperature variations through the rest of the year weren't extreme. While drier than normal in January, rainfall was 10 inches above normal for the year by the end of 2018, weather service records show.
A deluge came in February when a total of 9.7 inches of rain fell for the month, more than twice the normal 4.84 inches, causing localized flooding all over the region. TVA by Feb. 13 that year was spilling water through most of its mainstream dams to stem flooding that had already swamped parts of Chattanooga's Tennessee Riverpark. On Feb. 28, 2018, nearly 3.5 inches of rain fell, setting a record for the day and contributing generously to the total for the month.
March, however, was a bit drier, with only 4 of the normal 5 inches of rain, but was followed by rainfall totals in April that stood at 6.59 inches, more than 2.5 inches above normal, weather service records show. Near-normal rainfall was recorded until July when the region got more than 6 inches — normal's 4.91 — followed in September by another deluge.
On Sept. 26, 2018, heavy rains slammed the region, especially Soddy-Daisy, where raging flood waters from higher elevations tore through a neighborhood and claimed the life of a woman who lived on Durham Street. Many others were forced from their homes, and similar situations were repeated across the region. Continuing rains in late September also led to the cancellation of the Hamilton County Fair and the swim portion of the Ironman event held in downtown Chattanooga. Even though October was drier, the region never dried out.
In November and December 2018, the region got more than 16 inches of rain.
On Nov. 6, 2018, "[a] strong storm system moved through the Tennessee Valley region during the early morning hours with numerous reports of wind damage in association with the system's squall line," Hotz said. "Scattered trees and power lines were reported down across Hamilton County."
November ended up getting 7.35 inches of rain for the month, followed by another 9 inches in December, records show.
By December, the year was being dubbed as possibly the "wettest-ever," and officially surpassed the all-time mark of 65.1 inches of rain for the Tennessee River Valley region in 1973 with a total of 67.1 inches, according to TVA, which uses data from waterways upstream in North Carolina, Virginia and other parts of Tennessee that funnel into the Tennessee River and through Chattanooga. Weather service data shows the year as the 13th wettest all time in the Chattanooga region at 65.93 inches.
CHATTANOOGA AREA WEATHER TOP 10s
National Weather Service meteorologist David Hotz used agency data to determine extreme weather marks set since 2015 in the Chattanooga region in relation to all-time top 10 records.
Top 10 Driest Months
January 2018: Third driest
April 2016: Seventh driest
May 2016: Ninth driest
September 2019: Ninth driest
October 2016: First driest
Top 10 Wettest Months
February 2019: Second wettest
February 2018: Sixth wettest
April 2017: Third wettest
April 2015: Eighth wettest
August 2015: Eighth wettest
October 2019: Fourth wettest
October 2015: Ninth wettest
December 2015: Sixth wettest
December 2018: Eighth wettest
Top 10 Driest Years
2016: Fourth driest with 35.58 inches
Top 10 Wettest Years
2018: Thirteenth wettest
Source: National Weather Service NOWData
Winter weather for 2019 was pretty much a non-event, but heavy rain and flooding washed over from 2018 into 2019 and got much worse before inexplicably reversing course into a fall "flash drought."
An even 7 inches of rain fell in January 2019, followed by 11.31 inches in February, and 5.97 inches in March — all three high marks since 2015, records show. Rains in February 2019 caused minor flooding by mid-month, washed a vehicle with three people inside from a road in Buck's Pocket State Park in Alabama on Feb. 22 and left one dead, and led to a mudslide at the bottom of Signal Mountain overnight on Feb. 23 last year that leveled the Subway restaurant on Signal Mountain Road. Also that night, heavy rains played a role in the hit-and-run death of an on-duty Chattanooga police officer who was struck while inspecting an overflowing manhole cover on Hamill Road, archives show.
Rains in March 2019 tallied 5.97 inches, about an inch above normal, but not so much the Chickamauga Dam couldn't be reopened in late March when river levels dropped after a five-week shutdown.
Above-normal rainfall came again in April last year and in May plentiful rain set another five-year high with almost 6 inches of precipitation, records show. TVA in mid-May 2019 said the river was already at peak summer levels after 5 inches of rain had fallen in the Tennessee River Valley.
Then it warmed up. A lot.
The thermometer hit a near-record 95 degrees on May 26 last year in the middle of a 10-day streak of 90-plus degree heat, while notching a five-year high for the month, records show. June and July 2019 had near-normal temps and rainfall, then August arrived with summer heat and cloudless skies that ended the month with only 1.72 inches of rain and just four days with highs less than 90 degrees. The mercury hit 100 last year on Aug. 13 — the same day the region got three-quarters of an inch of rain — amid a 24-day run of temps above 90, records show.
September, supposedly the end of summer, offered no relief from the heat with a 13-day run of 90-degree-plus temps, finally topping out Sept. 13 at 103, then scorched the area with another 100-degree day on Sept. 17. Rainfall for last September totaled just more than half an inch.
The summer's stretch of heat and lack of rain led to what was dubbed a "flash drought" across the South, and the burners stayed on into October. The late-season hot and dry weather helped boost demand for electricity in the Tennessee Valley to the highest average peak for the month in TVA's history as air conditioners were in high use to cool homes and businesses.
In the first four days of October 2019, all-time highs of 97, 100, 100 and 95 were marked, respectively. Oddly, weather service officials observed at the time that the region was still ahead on annual rainfall by 6.8 inches.
Relief from drought-busting rains finally came Oct. 25, 2019, when 3.27 inches fell in one day, followed by another couple of inches by Halloween, records show. The total for the month ended up at 7.47 inches, or nearly twice the norm.
November and December weather consisted of near-normal rainfall and temperatures, records show.
Then Mother Nature took another sip and delivered more rain.
Records show 5.97 inches of rain fell in January, more than an inch more than normal, and on Feb. 5 another 2.31 inches fell followed by another 2 inches the next day, leading to widespread flooding in Chattanooga and elsewhere. In Northeast Alabama, flood waters swept away a vehicle in Buck's Pocket State Park with a man inside — the second time in less than a year — whose body was found downstream days later.
Then there was a snowfall Feb. 8 that left several inches piled up across the region until temps warmed by midday.
Already the second decade of the millennium is setting marks, Hotz said.
"This February will definitely be the second-wettest February on record," he said, noting that the rainfall total Friday at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport stood at 11.42 inches for the month.
The forecast for the weekend calls for a few clouds and a warmer-than-normal Sunday continuing into next week with more heavy rain on the way, according to Barys.
Local residents might want to prepare for the coming days with a down coat, flip-flops and a snorkel.
It's Tennessee, after all.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.