WORDS on WEATHER & CLIMATE

The Not So Merry Month of May

by CRAIG JAMES

The month of May can be one of the most pleasant months of the year, but I don’t think this past month qualified as pleasant. It was quite wet and gloomy. At least a trace of rain fell on 21 of the 31 days and there was only one day with 100% of possible sunshine. It was also another windy month. Every day of the month but two had wind gusts of 20 mph or more and three days had wind gusts over 40 mph. I have heard many comments that this has been one of the windiest spring seasons in memory and I have to agree.

On the plus side, it was certainly a great month for growing grass and the ornamental trees have looked beautiful. We are also now up to over 15 hours of daylight. The sun on the last day of the month climbed to 69 degrees above the horizon at solar noon. The highest it gets is 70 degrees from June 11 through July 1. The sun is up for 15 hours and 23 minutes June 20 through 24.

By the way, solar noon, or the time when the sun is highest in the sky, occurs in Grand Rapids on June 21, the first day of summer, at 1:45 in the afternoon. That’s almost two hours later than noon local time because we are at the western end of the time zone and also because we are on Daylight Saving Time. You may notice that our high temperatures for the day usually occur as late as 6 p.m. at this time of year.

Even though the wind made it feel cool much of the time, this past May was actually a little warmer than average thanks especially to the warm Memorial Day. The highest temperature of record for a Memorial Day in Grand Rapids was 92 degrees set way back in 1919. We just missed that reading by three degrees this year.

The western states have had a very cool spring. In Aspen, Colorado, there was almost twice as much snow on the ground on Memorial Day as there was on New Year’s Day and the ski hills are still open.

Memorial Day actually fell on May 30 this year, which is the traditional day it was observed from its inception in 1868 until 1971. Since the National Holiday Act was passed in 1971, the official observance has always been on the last Monday of the month to produce a three-day holiday.

One of the main reasons May was not a merry month was because of another brutal outbreak of tornadoes with the worst hitting Joplin, Missouri. This tornado caused at least 142 deaths, making it the most deadly single tornado since 1947. The most recent single tornado to kill over 100 people occurred in Flint back in 1953. There had not been another single tornado with over 100 fatalities in 58 years.

The population of the United States has almost doubled since 1950, so it is rather amazing that with so many more people in harm’s way this high a death toll didn’t happen sooner. The graphic shows the death rate per million of population since 1900.

You can see the spike up this year, but not to nearly the levels back at the beginning of the 20th century. I think we can thank the National Weather Service warning system for much of this improvement.

One of more amazing facts about the Joplin tornado is that debris from the tornado was carried aloft all the way to Indiana. According to a meteorology professor at Purdue University, a receipt from the Joplin, Missouri Tire Company was found 525 miles to the east in Royal Center, Ind. The receipt stayed in the air for over 12.5 hours.

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

 

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