2017 saw unusual warmth, hail like ‘billiard balls’ — but one Nebraska weather story eclipsed all others

Clouds usually aren’t a big deal.

But for one day in August, clouds threatened to muck up the most-anticipated celestial event of the year.

The Aug. 21, 2017, total solar eclipse mesmerized the nation and drew visitors from around the globe as it traversed the width of the U.S. from the northwest to the southeast. It was the first to cross the entire continental United States since 1918.

Nebraska, with its wide-open vistas and great network of roads, held out promise as prime viewing territory. NASA scientists and such luminaries as Bill Nye the Science Guy set their sights on the state for the rare opportunity to see an eclipse.

The only problem? On the big day, clouds — and in some cases, rain — moved into eastern Nebraska. While some people abandoned plans to travel here, an estimated 708,000 made it to Nebraska.

As the eclipse neared, the clouds parted just enough for many viewers to see the moon blot out the sun. In Falls City, totality was reached at 1:04 p.m. Darkness fell, buildings’ automatic lights flipped on and birds took flight from treetop perches. In the western and north-central parts of the state, where skies were clear, the effect of the darkened sun was a 360-degree “sunset” around the horizon.

The eclipse was accompanied by a drop in temperatures. At one western Nebraska monitoring station, the temperature dropped 10 degrees, said Martha Shulski, Nebraska’s state climatologist. In eastern Nebraska, where clouds limited the effect, the drop in temperature wasn’t as significant.

The next total solar eclipse to pass over parts of Nebraska won’t be until May 3, 2106.

The solar eclipse was Nebraska’s top weather story of 2017. What follows are a handful of other major weather stories from the past year.

Sustained warmth

For the third consecutive year and the sixth time since 2005, Nebraska will record one of its 15 warmest years in 132 years of record-keeping.

The sustained warmth has shortened the “winter” season, lessened heating bills and provided extra days of short-sleeve weather for golfing, long walks and bicycling. And while it has lengthened the growing season, the increased warmth also has prolonged allergy season and increased the risk to some crops.

Summertime vegetables — corn, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans — are less productive during periods of heightened overnight temperatures because the heat kills the pollen.

Winterlike temperatures ended early last winter and the cold came late this year in Omaha, another sign of the unusual warmth of 2017. February was Omaha’s fourth-warmest on record.

Utility customers are enjoying lower heating bills in part thanks to earlier warm weather. More efficient furnaces and a drop in natural gas prices are major reasons, too. At the Metropolitan Utilities District, the volume of natural gas being delivered to customers is down about 8.5 percent.

From late summer 2015 through July 2017, Omaha went 24 months in a row with monthly temperatures averaging above normal, said Barbara Mayes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Valley. August brought an end to that streak, Mayes said, but average monthly temperatures returned to being above normal in September. The recent cold weather isn’t expected to drop December’s average temperature below normal, Mayes said.

Absent snow

Plenty of winter remains, so things could change quickly. But for the calendar year 2017, Omaha has been on pace for its fifth-lowest snow total, Mayes said. The average amount for the calendar year is 26.4 inches. As of midnight Wednesday, Omaha had accumulated 11.4 inches of snow since Jan. 1. The total would have to climb to 12.9 inches for the snow amount to move into sixth place. The lowest amount on record is 8.3 inches, recorded in 1954.

In addition to frustrating sledders and cross-country skiers, a lack of snow isn’t good for the state’s important winter wheat crop. Snow provides an insulating layer to the wheat, which is planted in the fall, germinates and then hibernates for the winter. Absent that snow, the crop is more vulnerable to a killing freeze.

Lake McConaughy wildfire

Warm and dry conditions sparked a wildfire on the north shore of Lake McConaughy on March 18. Fire crews worked through the night to control the fire, but it broke through their lines the next day. As morning dawned March 19, conditions proved ideal for rapidly spreading fire: Temperatures reached into the 90s and winds gusted in excess of 45 mph.

While the number of acres damaged wasn’t high — about 500 — the location of the fire was what was so destructive. In all, eight homes, one outbuilding and eight garages were damaged or destroyed.

A few tornadoes

This year generally was a quiet one for tornadoes. Still, this is Nebraska, so tornadoes showed up.

On June 16, a strong storm swept through the Omaha metro area, dropping two tornadoes in the Bellevue area. The twisters tore off roofs, punched holes in homes, downed hundreds of power poles and ripped down several miles of utility lines. The storm also damaged two schools — one in Bellevue and one in Papillion — and caused significant damage to homes and facilities at Offutt Air Force Base.

At the peak of the outages, about 76,000 customers were without power, a count that ranks as the fourth-biggest outage in at least four decades, according to the Omaha Public Power District.

On Aug. 19, thunderstorms in north-central Nebraska spawned at least four tornadoes, according to the weather service office in North Platte. The strongest tornado was rated EF-2 with estimated peak winds of 120 mph. A couple of residences were damaged.

Official statewide tornado numbers aren’t yet available, but figures from the Hastings office of the weather service provide an indication of the relative quiet. Shawn Rossi, a meteorologist there, said the Hastings office issued only four tornado warnings this year, compared with about 30 in a normal year.

“I don’t think there’s too many people complaining that we had a slow severe weather season,” he said.

Big, bad hail

Late on a Thursday night in June, a major hailstorm dropped stones as big as tennis balls on parts of Omaha. Most heavily affected were the Benson and midtown areas. By the next morning, insurance companies began receiving hundreds of calls about damaged cars and roofs. At least 100 vehicles weren’t drivable, according to one insurance company. It’s estimated that the city sustained more than $80 million in damage to homes, businesses and vehicles.

Rick Gobble, who lives in the Country Club area, described the hailstorm as “raining billiard balls.”

Ice storm

South-central Nebraska saw its worst ice storm in 10 years from Jan. 15 to 16, Rossi said. Between a tenth and a half inch of ice coated surfaces across the region. The ice prompted schools, businesses and the Grand Island and Kearney airports to close. Roads and parking lots were turned into skating rinks, and ice that fell from the KSNB television tower north of Hastings broke a windshield in the parking lot. Among the crashes was a fiery collision between two semitrailers on Interstate 80.

Damaging flash flooding

Intense thunderstorms in mid-August led to record-breaking rainfall and damaging flooding in portions of north-central and central Nebraska. Some of the storms also generated 80 mph winds and hail the size of baseballs.

Northern Custer County received more than 10 inches of rain over three consecutive nights. Several roads and highways were blocked by flooding, and some were washed out. Twelve flash-flood warnings were issued during those three nights, twice the total for all of 2016.

October winds put dent in corn harvest

For the most part, farmers had a good year in terms of yield in Nebraska, but the corn crop in central Nebraska took a significant hit from strong October wind storms, according to Shulski and Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

The winds knocked the ears of corn off the stalks and to the ground, and those ears couldn’t be harvested. Some farmers estimated that they lost 25 percent of their yield. Farmers already were struggling due to the low prices they expected to get for their harvest.

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