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State climatologists: 2020 in NC was “a very strange year,” portends more climate change upheaval

 

The mountains were snow-deprived. The nights were sweaty and hot. And at times, it seemed the rain would never stop.

The year 2020 broke, or came close to breaking, several weather records in North Carolina, indicating that climate change is not a distant threat, but an immediate one, playing out in real time.

  • 2020 was the second-wettest on record, even though only one hurricane, Isaias, made landfall.
  • The year tied 2017 for the third-warmest, not because of a streak of 100-degree days, but because the nights were steamy. In terms of minimum temperatures, 2020 was the warmest since 1895, and the sixth consecutive year this record was broken.

“It was a very strange year,” said Assistant State Climatologist Corey Davis during yesterday’s virtual recap on 2020 climate trends. “It was warm and wet, but no one event stands out. It happened drop by drop, warm day by warm day.”

Hurricane Isaias, the only one of 30 named storms to make landfall in North Carolina last year, spawned an EF-3 tornado in Bertie County. But eight tropical storms and hurricanes that originated in the Gulf streamed northeast. These moisture bombs soaked North Carolina, causing landslides in the mountains and widespread flooding statewide.

Yet even without a tropical storm, on June 18 the Tar River in Rocky Mountain reached its third-highest crest, after records broken during Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew.

Warm air can hold more moisture, so these non-tropical deluges are becoming more common, said State Climatologist Kathie Dello. “We know North Carolina is getting warmer and wetter, ” Dello said. “We know something’s going on. There will be more 3-, 4-, 5-inch rain event days.”

There was other notable climate data from 2020:

  • The National Weather Service confirmed 48 tornadoes, including 16 on April 13, and one on Christmas Eve in Columbus County. The year 2020 ranked sixth since 1950 in number of twisters. Of the 48, nearly half developed from tropical systems.
  • And Boone received only 6.1 inches of snow, a fraction of the normal — 35.3 inches. Even Mount Mitchell, with an elevation of 6,684 feet, was shortchanged in the snow department: Only 64.2 inches, compared with the expected 92.3 inches.
  • Highlands, in Macon County, reported its wettest year on record — 136.5 inches — or 11 feet.
  • Seven of the warmest years on record in North Carolina have occurred since 2007.

The hot nights contributed to an overall temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, based on the average from 1981 to 2010. “This is a huge concern,” Dello said, adding that urban residents, people vulnerable to heat-related illness like those without air conditioning, the elderly, and outdoor workers, are particularly at risk.

If climate changes continues on its current trajectory, the average temperature in North Carolina could be 4 to 10 degrees warmer by the Year 2100.

“This is a different North Carolina than 30 years ago,” Dello said.

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State climatologists: 2020 in NC was “a very strange year,” portends more climate change upheaval