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Drought, wildfires are Nebraska's top weather stories of 2020
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Drought, wildfires are Nebraska's top weather stories of 2020

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The sharp swing from one of Nebraska’s wettest years on record to widespread drought dominated the weather headlines in 2020.

Through November, Nebraska was in the midst of its 15th driest year out of 126, while 2019 was the state’s third wettest. Most noticeable was August 2020, the state’s driest August on record.

Weather extremes are normal in Nebraska because the state sits at the crossroads of continental climate patterns, said Martha Shulksi, Nebraska state climatologist. That can make it hard to detect the inflection of climate change, but global warming has supercharged the atmosphere with energy, she said.

“More variations and back-to-back extremes (very wet to dry) are the signature of climate change,” she said.

The following are five noteworthy weather stories of the year.

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Browning stalks of corn near Winslow, Nebraska, in September. 

Drought: At the start of 2020, not an acre of Nebraska was in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Now, more than 99% of Nebraska is in drought, with half in severe to extreme drought. The state hasn’t seen a drought this extensive since the flash drought of 2012 lingered into 2013, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Rangeland declined so much that some ranchers sold cattle early to save on feed. Several counties were designated disasters.

Wildfires: The state’s driest August on record fueled large range fires. By early September, the state had recorded more than 625 wildfires, the most since 2012, the state’s record year. The Hubbard Gap Fire in the Nebraska Panhandle left six volunteer firefighters injured, prompted two emergency evacuations and devoured 4,000 acres. The Aristocrat Fire near Chadron erupted the day after the Hubbard Gap Fire, and the two large fires severely taxed resources.

Hubbardnight (copy)

The Hubbard Gap Fire burned nearly 4,000 acres in late August and proved dangerous and difficult to fight. It occurred mostly in the Wildcat Hills south of Scottsbluff, though some of it broke through to the grasslands and cropland along the hills. Firefighters contained it before it could get going in the flats.

Hazy skies: Smoke from massive wildfires in western states turned Nebraska’s skies hazy and milky. For the most part, the smoke from the tragic fires remained in the upper atmosphere and did little more than enhance Nebraska sunsets. But there were days when it did filter down and affect air quality. At one point in September, visibility in the North Platte area dropped to about a mile, said Chris Buttler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Landspouts: The year was light on tornadoes, but clusters of landspouts occurred over the summer in Nebraska, lighting up social media and making for riveting photography. Landspouts lack the strength of traditional tornadoes and often appear as thin ropes. In July, the National Weather Service received more than a dozen reports of landspouts in western Nebraska and a handful in Colorado.

Derecho: Eastern Nebraska was dealt a glancing blow by the derecho that devastated Iowa. Derechos are long-lived, straight-line wind storms, and this one traveled 770 miles, causing $7.5 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Omaha and surrounding areas, about 57,000 customers of the Omaha Public Power District lost power, making the storm one of the 10 worst in the utility’s history.

Other big weather news in 2019 included damaging winds and thunderstorms in south-central Nebraska, ice jam flooding in eastern Nebraska and snowstorms in September, October and late December.

Nancy Gaarder's memorable stories of 2020

Here are five of my better-read stories that are varied and share only one thing in common: They have nothing to do with COVID-19. 

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Email: nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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