August 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm

A vortex of weird weather: 2014 starts cold and snowy, but gives way to deluges of rain

Detroit— Catastrophic flooding is only the latest in a litany of extreme weather to hit Michigan this year, from the polar vortex this winter to algae blooms befouling Lake Erie in summer.

Weather defines our lives, but unlike most years, 2014 seems defined by weird weather that has caused a string of mass outages, flooded basements, marooned motorists and, earlier this month, made the water of metropolitan Toledo undrinkable for a few days.

“It’s been a bad year,” said DaShanta West, 28, of Canton Township. “We had polar vortexes in the winter. Now we have to be concerned about baby tsunamis coming from the sewers. It’s crazy.”

Three to six inches of rain fell in Metro Detroit in about four hours Monday. The National Weather Service was still scouring records on Tuesday, but the deluge is believed to be the most since July 31, 1925, when the region saw 4.75 inches.

Put another way: Most months in Metro Detroit, 3 inches or less falls over the course of 30 days.

It’s the latest in a year of meteorological superlatives. The first week in January, the polar vortex plunged temperatures to -14. By winter’s end, nearly 95 inches of snow fell in Metro Detroit, the most since at least 1880. Overall, winter was the coldest since 1912 and fourth-coldest ever.

This year has been the 15th coolest on record in Metro Detroit, with average temperatures of 45.2 degrees, 3.7 degrees colder than normal. It may be cold here, but globally, 2014 is tied for the third warmest to date, according to the weather service.

Monday, it rained so much that manhole covers popped off in Berkley, 108-inch sewer lines were at capacity and the George W. Kuhn Retention Treatment Basin in Madison Heights recorded its highest water levels ever, said Craig Covey, spokesman for Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.

So what gives? Not much, said Heather Orow, a meteorologist with the Weather Service in White Lake.

“This is just the natural variation,” she said. “It’s hard to take one event and tie it together with a global phenomenon to reach any conclusions.”

This year, five storms have knocked out power to at least 100,000 DTE Energy customers, including three since June 17, said Scott Simon, a spokesman for the utility. That’s not atypical, he said.

“No doubt it’s been an unusual year,” said Gary Fahnenstiel, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute. “But how much is natural variability of weather changing from year to year and how much is climate change, who knows?”

Others are more convinced. Covey said he’s going to “stomp my feet” if he hears anyone refer to Monday’s storms as a “100-year event” again. The widespread flooding comes one week after heavy rains washed out streets in St. Clair Shores and Grosse Pointe.

The extreme storms are “what southeast Michigan’s weather is going to be like in the future” because of climate change, Covey predicted.

“The (sewer) system worked exactly like it was supposed to, but we’re seeing these rain events that used to be unusual but just aren’t anymore,” Covey said.

Whatever the case, this likely isn’t the last of wacky weather.

Earlier this year, many expected a mild winter because long-range forecasts called for the development of a strong El Niño that warms ocean currents, Fahnenstiel said.

But last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dropped the odds for a big El Niño to 65 percent from 80 percent. Around the same time, Accuweather predicted a colder and snowier winter than usual.
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