Weather Events in 2023: El Niño, Maui Fires, unprecedented warnings, extreme heat & “exceptional” drought

Looking back on the major weather events of 2023 unveils nature’s unpredictability in the times of El Niño— we experienced everything from the deadliest wildfire in a century and unprecedented tropical storm warnings to months of extreme heat and “exceptional” drought that strained producers across Rural America.

Looking back on the major weather events of 2023 unveils nature’s unpredictability in the times of El Nino. From the deadliest wildfire in a century and unprecedented tropical storm warnings to months of extreme heat and “exceptional” drought — the major weather event of last year strained producers across Rural America in a myriad of ways, and many will continue to grapple with the lingering impact of these treacherous storms as they echo into 2024 and for years to come.

Let’s review the major weather headlines of 2023:

El Niño

We cannot begin to discuss the weather of last year without reflecting on El Nino, which set in again back in April, and its ongoing impact on conditions around the world. A study in the journal Science warned that El Nino could lead to $3 trillion in global economic loss and put a major strain on ag production.

The unsettled global weather pattern is known to cause extreme temperatures, drought, and strong storms. They can last for periods as short as six months but typically span at least nine months to more than a year. According to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, there is a 60-percent chance the current El Niño will end between April and June of 2024.

The Maui Wildfires

The United States experienced a relatively quiet wildfire season in 2023, with one significant exception in Hawaii. While many fires burned there, the Lauda Fire was declared the deadliest single wildfire in the United States in more than a century.

In a recent address to the media, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) Meteorologist Brad Rippey recounted the devastating wildfires on the Island of Maui:

[The Lauda Fire was] the deadliest U.S. single wildfire in more than a century — since some of the Great North Woods fires back in the early 20th Century across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and neighboring states in the Upper Midwest — the current death toll there is 100 individuals. That came in an overall fairly quiet wildfire season for the United States as a whole and underscores that even in an overall quiet season, whether you’re talking about wildfires or hurricanes, you can still have a single or a couple of very devastating events.
USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey

The Lahaina Fire burned over 2,170 acres, and USDA’s initial estimates reveal more than 6,300 acres of agricultural land was scorched.

Unprecedented Tropical Storms

In other 2023 weather highlights, Rippey discussed two notable tropical systems, including the first-ever tropical storm warning in Southern California.

“Hurricane Hilary, an eastern Pacific storm, moved into Southern California on August 18th,” Rippey said. “This system, a tropical storm upon entering Southern California, resulted in the first-ever tropical storm warning for the region. Flash flooding and high winds impacted the Southwest, with record 24-hour rainfall totals from California to Idaho.”

The most significant hurricane to hit the U.S. in 2023 was Hurricane Idalia, making landfall south of Perry, Florida, on August 30 as a Category 3 storm with 125-mile-per-hour winds,” Rippey said. “The storm caused significant damage across the Big Bend area of Florida, moving into Georgia before exiting the Southeastern Coast. Early reports indicate nearly $4 billion worth of damage and five fatalities related to the passage of Hurricane Adalia.

Triple-Digit Heat & “Exceptional” Drought

We have covered the extreme heat and drought that has strained producers and stressed livestock across the
country for months on end. While the summertime heat has abated for now, giving livestock producers a chance to recoil and recover, ongoing drought concerns for many key crops linger into the winter for many.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, fifty-five percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing some level of drought in January 2023, with the more extreme conditions seen in the Plains and Western regions. In some regions of the country, conditions reached levels classified as “extreme” to “exceptional” for long periods.

Now, as the year begins, 70 percent of the same area is facing dry conditions, However, the focus has shifted to the South, Southeast, and Gulf Coast regions. Experts predict drought is likely to stick around in 2024.

For Rural America’s current weather conditions, daily farm-focused forecasts, and the latest weather headlines and resources, please visit RFD-TV Weather.

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