Thanks to historic drought conditions, a lack of severe thunderstorms occurred across Western and North Central Nebraska in 2012. However, when severe storms did occur in February, March and April, they were significant with numerous tornadoes reported in March and the first ever Nebraska tornado in February. Widespread fires began to develop by mid to late summer into fall, thanks to exceptional drought conditions and historic heat which set in by early July. By mid December, a blizzard developed and tracked across southwestern and portions of central Nebraska. the following are the top 5 weather events from Western and North Central Nebraska for 2012, in order of occurrence, as voted on by the staff at the National Weather Service in North Platte.

A Nebraska Record - The First February Tornado Ever
In Nebraska, February 28, 2012, will be remembered as a powerful late winter storm system produced a myriad of weather, to include the first ever confirmed tornado in the state during the month of February. Harsh winter weather conditions occurred across far northern Nebraska while atmospheric ingredients came together in the west central for severe thunderstorms. The first tornado that day occurred in Lincoln and Logan counties during the afternoon hours.
At 413 p.m. CST the tornado was reported 21 miles northeast of North Platte. The tornado was on the ground intermittently for up to six minutes as it tracked northeast into Logan County and shown below. The path of the tornado was over open rangeland and cropland, although some tree damage occurred and a center pivot irrigation system was overturned prior to the tornado dissipating 4 miles southwest of Stapleton. The tornado path was three miles and was rated an EF0 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

Photo Courtesy of Bob Denny

Tornadoes Hit Lincoln, McPherson and Cherry County on March 18th
Isolated supercell thunderstorms developed across southwestern Nebraska during the evening of March 18th. As these storms tracked into central portions of Lincoln county, numerous tornadoes developed to the southwest and west of the city of North Platte. In addition to Lincoln county, tornadoes were also reported in southeastern McPherson county and in northeastern Cherry county. A total of 6 tornadoes occurred that evening and are summarized below:
The first tornado of the evening touched down at 810 pm CST, 10 miles southwest of North Platte and tracked 6 miles to the north, dissipating near walker road. This tornado was rated EF3 and damaged two farmsteads, overturned 2 pivot irrigation systems and destroyed an electrical transmission tower. Two injuries resulted from this tornado and total damage was estimated at a half a million dollars.
The second tornado, rated EF1, touched down 5 miles west southwest of North Platte and crossed Interstate 80 before dissipating just south of the South Platte River. As the tornado crossed the interstate, it destroyed a tractor trailer injuring the driver. In addition to the destroyed semi, a center pivot was overturned and outbuildings were damaged. Total damage was estimated at $250,000.
A third tornado, rated EF3, developed 5 miles of North Platte near front street, and tracked north northeast across the west end of bailey yard. In addition to 15 overturned rail tanker cars, two houses were destroyed, two heavily damaged and two injuries were reported. Damage was estimated at $750,000.
The last tornado in Lincoln county, touched down 5 miles west northwest of North Platte and was rated EF2. This tornado damaged two homesteads, including damage to outbuildings. Damage from this tornado was estimated at $200,000.
Two additional tornadoes touched down that evening in southeastern McPherson county and in northeastern cherry county. Both were rated EF0. The tornado in southeastern McPherson county dissipated near Ringgold where it damaged the Ringgold church and overturned a center pivot irrigation system. The tornado in Cherry county touched down over open rangeland and no damage was reported. Damage in McPherson county was around $100,000.

Photo by NWS

Photo by NWS

Record Heat and Dryness 2012
Across Western and North Central Nebraska, 2012 will go down as one of the warmest and driest on record. Many locations recorded the warmest average high temperature for the year ever, however the average low temperature was not near the warmest, but still well above average. In addition to the very warm temperatures was the lack of precipitation, especially during the last 8 months of the year from May to December, which was easily the driest on record for the region.
The year started out on the mild and dry side for January. This was followed by a slightly cool and wet February. Then came March, which ended as the second warmest on record, just behind 1910 with an average daily mean temperature over 10 degrees above normal. The average high temperatures were a staggering 15 to 17 degrees above normal helping to kick start spring early. Of the 31 days in March, North Platte managed to hit or surpass 70 degrees 19 times, a typical March has just over 3 days when the temperature reaches 70 degrees or more. Precipitation during the month was slightly below normal. April continued to be warm, however a wet pattern developed with most of the area 1 to 2 inches above normal for month. At this point in the year, temperatures, especially highs, were well above normal and precipitation was close to normal. Then May started, and the record drought of 2012 began. In addition to the absence of precipitation, temperatures rivaled those of the dust bowl years.
In the end, 2012 would set the record for the most days at or above 70 degrees, at or above 80 degrees, and at or above 90 degrees at both North Platte and Valentine. Records for North Platte and Valentine go back to 1874 and 1889, respectively. Valentine tied 1936 for the most days at or above 100 degrees, while North Platte was second behind 1936 for most days at or above 100. North Platte also recorded 2 long stretches with temperatures reaching the 90 degree mark, tying the 1936 record of 25 consecutive days from July 10 to August 3. This was after a long stretch of 16 days from June 22 to July 7, which tied for sixth longest. Valentine shattered their record with 26 consecutive days (July 9 to August 3) at or above 90 degrees. The previous record was set in July of 1936 with 18 consecutive days. During the long hot stretches, North Platte would reach second for consecutive days at or above 100 with 8 days, while Valentine would tie their record with 11 consecutive days above 100 degrees.
While the temperatures were soaring, precipitation was bypassing the area. The 3 summer months of June, July and August ended up as the driest on record. North Platte would shatter their record with only 2.65 inches of precipitation measured at Lee Bird Field. Second on the list was 1886 which totaled 3.81 inches or 1.16 inches more than this year. Valentine did slightly better with 2.76 inches recorded at Miller Field, ahead of the 1917 record of 2.92 inches. The drought would continue into the 3 fall months of September, October, and November. North Platte would record only 0.43 inches, and ended up as the driest fall on record. Valentine again did better, recording 1.15 inches, which was the seventh lowest total for the fall season. December has seen close to normal precipitation with several snow storms impacting the area. The total precipitation for 2012 was 10.04 inches of precipitation at North Platte, ranking as the second driest on record, just behind 1931 which recorded 10.01 inches. Valentine ended the year with 10.68 inches, ranking as the third driest on record. 1894 was the driest on record for Valentine with 10.14 inches. Normal rainfall for North Platte and Valentine are 20.23 inches and 20.02 inches respectively. However when looking at the 7 months from May to November, only 3.82 inches was recorded at North Platte, which was 11.84 inches below normal. Valentine recorded only 4.63 inches or 10.99 inches below normal. Imperial recorded 5.85 inches during the 7 months, 9.17 inches below normal. The largest deficit occurred at the Broken Bow airport, which only recorded 1.48 inches during the 7 months, an astonishing 16.64 inches below normal. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Western and North Central Nebraska started 2012 with no drought over most of western Nebraska and a small area over north central Nebraska classified as abnormally dry. Conditions would quickly degrade during the hot and dry summer months to a classification of exceptional drought, the most intense drought category. The area has ended the year still in an exceptional drought classification.


Fires Ravage Western and North Central Nebraska in 2012
Atmospheric conditions became increasingly favorable for large fire growth during the height of the 2012 drought as gusty erratic winds combined with abnormally warm temperatures and exceptionally low relative humidity to severely stress native vegetation. In fact, vegetation across the region cured several weeks early, with area Fire Management Officers (FMOs) reporting fuels susceptible to fire as early as the first of July (during a time when vegetation is typically "green.") Compounding the problem, fuel loads (material available for burning) were abnormally high, due in part to several previous years of above average precipitation and overall lack of wildfire. With area vegetation primed for burning, and the fact the on-going drought intensified during the summer months, the stage was set for large-destructive fires that would exhibit extreme fire behavior and rapid spread rates, all that was needed was a spark.
Friday, July 20th, a wildfire started in the vicinity of Fairfield Creek along the banks of the Scenic Niobrara River. Responding fire crews had difficulty in controlling the fire as daytime temperatures soared to near 110 degrees Fahrenheit and southerly winds gusted to 40 mph. The fire quickly burned out of control and consumed an estimated 100,000 acres before finally extinguished several days later. Several other significant fires were on-going while the "Fairfield Creek" fire burned; two large fires burned portions of Rock, Keya Paha, Holt and Boyd counties while several other large, dry-lightning ignited fires burned across portions of Western Cherry and Sheridan County. The most notable of the dry-lightning caused fires was near Merriman where an additional 2 1/2 square miles of land along the banks of the Niobrara River were consumed.
The occurrence of large fire across the Sandhills region of Nebraska continued through late summer and into fall as numerous fires darkened significant acreage across Sheridan, Keith, Lincoln, Perkins, Chase, Western Cherry and Custer counties. On August 4th, a fire aided by strong shifting winds consumed over 50,000 acres of crop and ranch land in Keith County. In early September, a significant dry-lightning event sparked several large wildfires across northwest Nebraska, with approximately 63,000 acres burned in Sheridan and Cherry Counties. The "Welnitz fire," as it would be called, was aided by strong erratic winds and hot temperatures. It eventually burned north into South Dakota where an additional 30,000 acres were consumed. The "Korty Check Fire," on October 19th, consumed another 10,000 acres of land near Interstate 80 in Keith County and south into Perkins County. The Korty Check Fire was aided by an anomalously strong cold front that produced 70 mph wind gusts near Ogallala and widespread blowing dust over southwest Nebraska.
All of the large fires of 2012 shared 4 common factors, 1) fuels were decimated by record drought, 2) temperatures were well above average, 3) relative humidity was exceptionally low, not only during the heat of the day, but also at night, and 4) wind speeds were anomalously high. Unless significant precipitation were to occur reversing the trend of this current drought, 2013 may be as active in terms of large fires as 2012. Especially since abnormally warm, dry and windy conditions would once again be expected.

Photo courtesy Regina Loewe Braun

Photo courtesy National Parks Service

Photo courtesy National Parks Service

Photo courtesy National Parks Service
Fire photos all of the Fairfield Creek Fire through the Niobrara National Scenic River Facebook Page

The December 19th Blizzard
A strong low pressure system tracked across the area on Wednesday December 19th bringing very strong wind and snowfall to much of western and north central Nebraska. The system originated across northern Arizona and southern Utah and as it moved east across the Rockies and onto the Plains it intensified rapidly early Wednesday morning. Snow then developed across the western portion of the state and expanded eastward during the morning and into the afternoon. In addition, as the low pressure system intensified rapidly, strong winds occurred with the areas of heaviest snowfall and produced white-out conditions throughout most of southwest Nebraska. In some areas of southwest Nebraska blizzard conditions developed, with visibilities reduced to less than one quarter mile for much of Wednesday afternoon, along with wind gusts exceeding 45 MPH and very heavy snowfall. By Wednesday evening, snowfall amounts for the storm ranged from less than one inch across portions of northern Nebraska, to over 6 inches from Chase county eastward into Frontier county. Because of the strong winds, snow drifts of better than 2 feet were also reported with the storm. In addition, portions of Interstate 80 and other roadways were closed from Wednesday into Thursday morning limiting travel across the state. Though the system was quick moving, the weather conditions became dangerous for much of the day Wednesday into Thursday as the low pressure system exited western Nebraska and continued to produce heavy snow and strong winds into central and eastern Nebraska.
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