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August 18, 2010 / Dave Gorham

Midwest Flooding…Comparing This Year to The Great Midwest Flood of 1993

It’s hard to believe that 1993 was nearly 20 years ago but many of you who are about my age (and I won’t tell you how old that is) can remember some of the weather events from many years ago. Especially if you love weather like I do. I got to thinking a few days ago that areas of the Midwest that have continued to see bouts of rain for much of this summer, especially in the months of June, July and August with more rain on the way later this week.

Heavy Rain Potential for Midwest Again. Map: ImpactWeather

The year 1993 was especially devastating for those living in the Midwest when the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers rose above their banks in many major cities. This summer has affected some of the same people yet again this year. There is a difference, though, between 1993 and 2010.

First of all, the amount of snow melt early in the year in 1993 combined with the extremely heavy amounts of rain that summer leading to some of the worst flooding ever seen especially across that area of the nation extending from the Dakotas and Iowa down to Missouri.

Areas affected by the Flood of 1993. Map: Worlds of Weather

 

Flooding Over Midwest. Photo: AP

 Now as we move ahead nearly 20 years, similar flooding but not quite on as large a scale is going on right now across portions of the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska and parts of Missouri. The snow melt this year wasn’t as big a deal and it didn’t linger quite as late into spring as it did 17 years ago.

Of all the 1993 rainfall records from June through the first half of August across the Upper Midwest, I found nearly one-third of them have been broken this year and yet we still have half of the month to go.

So does the weather pattern of 1993 compare to that of 2010? Looking at some of the past patterns, it does look fairly similar. In the picture below, you’ll notice that in 1993 the upper pattern showed a high pressure system (ridge) parked over the Southeast U.S. and this allowed for fetches of moisture to ride around the ridge from the Gulf of Mexico.

1993 500 mb weather pattern. Image: KCWeather.org

This year has been fairly similar with respect to the upper pattern, however this year the high has meandered from the southeast coast to the Southern Plains. That’s why the heavy amounts have only been felt in certain areas and not as widespread as they were in the early 90’s. Only recently does it look like we will begin to see a shift in the pattern in the coming weeks. But until we do, more rounds of heavy showers and thunderstorms are expected across the regions that have already been affected.

500 mb chart. Map: NCEP

Also, a strong surface high pressure area has remained parked over the Southeast U.S. and that will keep any cold fronts from advancing further south and will actually stall them over the already affected regions.

Another contributing factor is that when a region has already seen copious amounts of moisture, there is still plenty of fuel (ground moisture) to feed the opportunity for more rain to fall over a particular area. Conversely, when an area suffers from a drought, moisture and rain are hard to come by because the fuel isn’t there.

Those who read blogs, watch TV (or however you get your weather information), will hear meteorologists talk about the weather pattern repeating itself. This is true everywhere and we will continue to see this sort of pattern again sometime down the road. Let’s just hope it’s not within the next few months, otherwise we could be looking at an event similar to the one that occurred in 1993 again…or even worse.

I look back on this and I always wonder, would I rather have too much rain or not enough? The more I think about it, I think it’s better to have too much rain simply because it’s so much harder to recover from a drought than a flood. Granted, a flood can cause catastrophic deaths and damage over several thousands of square miles, but typically floods of the magnitude of 1993 and even this year’s event don’t happen that often. Droughts can cause so much more in the way of long-term damage and, speaking from an agricultural standpoint, they can really create problems for farmers which can lead to a domino effect resulting in higher prices, shortages of some crops and, potentially, financial ruin for subsections of the farming industry.

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