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Kenneth E. Kunkel and Arnold Court
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Stanley A. Changnon and Kenneth E. Kunkel

During the last 20 years the use of climate data and information in agriculture and water resources has increased dramatically. This has resulted from vastly improved access to comprehensive datasets and climate information made available by wide use of personal computers, as well as ease of access due to Internet connections to computer systems containing specially developed climate databases and information packages. Furthermore, the recent development of better, more sophisticated information about how climate conditions affect various physical conditions and economic outcomes has enabled more informed decisions by managers, who, in turn, developed a greater awareness of how to utilize climate information. The demand for information has grown as a result of increasing economic pressures and because certain agricultural and water management activities and their infrastructure have become more sensitive to certain climate aberrations. These factors have led to the development of new suppliers of data and information, including regional climate centers to handle the quick assembly of updated databases, and the expansion of the private sector into the provision of specialized climate information needed by a wide variety of users. Key new uses relate to near-real-time access to constantly updated interpreted data and to availability of sophisticated information products relating current and future climate conditions to specific outcomes. In sum, these advances represent major improvements in the service of atmospheric sciences to the nation, helping to improve the economy and environmental management.

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Kenneth E. Kunkel, Roger A. Pielke Jr., and Stanley A. Changnon

This paper reviews recent work on trends during this century in societal impacts (direct economic losses and fatalities) in the United States from extreme weather conditions and compares those with trends of associated atmospheric phenomena. Most measures of the economic impacts of weather and climate extremes over the past several decades reveal increasing losses. But trends in most related weather and climate extremes do not show comparable increases with time. This suggests that increasing losses are primarily due to increasing vulnerability arising from a variety of societal changes, including a growing population in higher risk coastal areas and large cities, more property subject to damage, and lifestyle and demographic changes subjecting lives and property to greater exposure.

Flood damages and fatalities have generally increased in the last 25 years. While some have speculated that this may be due in part to a corresponding increase in the frequency of heavy rain events, the climate contribution to the observed impacts trends remains to be quantified. There has been a steady increase in hurricane losses. However, when changes in population, inflation, and wealth are considered, there is instead a downward trend. This is consistent with observations of trends in hurricane frequency and intensity. Increasing property losses due to thunderstorm-related phenomena (winds, hail, tornadoes) are explained entirely by changes in societal factors, consistent with the observed trends in the thunderstorm phenomena. Winter storm damages have increased in the last 10–15 years and this appears to be partially due to increases in the frequency of intense nor'easters. There is no evidence of changes in drought-related losses (although data are poor) and no apparent trend in climatic drought frequency. There is also no evidence of changes in the frequency of intense heat or cold waves.

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Stanley A. Changnon, Kenneth E. Kunkel, and Beth C. Reinke

The short but intense heat wave in mid-July 1995 caused 830 deaths nationally, with 525 of these deaths in Chicago. Many of the dead were elderly, and the event raised great concern over why it happened. Assessment of causes for the heat wave–related deaths in Chicago revealed many factors were at fault, including an inadequate local heat wave warning system, power failures, questionable death assessments, inadequate ambulance service and hospital facilities, the heat island, an aging population, and the inability of many persons to properly ventilate their residences due to fear of crime or a lack of resources for fans or air conditioning. Heat-related deaths appear to be on the increase in the United States. Heat-related deaths greatly exceed those caused by other life-threatening weather conditions. Analysis of the impacts and responses to this heat wave reveals a need to 1) define the heat island conditions during heat waves for all major cities as a means to improve forecasts of threatening conditions, 2) develop a nationally uniform means for classifying heat-related deaths, 3) improve warning systems that are designed around local conditions of large cities, and 4) increase research on the meteorological and climatological aspects of heat stress and heat waves.

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Michael A. Palecki, Stanley A. Changnon, and Kenneth E. Kunkel

The July 1999 heat wave in the Midwest was an event of relatively long duration punctuated by extreme conditions during its last 2 days. The intensity of the heat wave on 29 and 30 July rivaled that of the 1995 heat wave that killed more than 1000 people in the central United States. In 1999, however, the death toll was about one-fourth of this amount in the same region. The 1999 heat wave 2-day maximum apparent temperature was slightly less than during the 1995 heat wave at most Midwestern first-order stations. In addition, the 2-day peak was preceded by several hot days that allowed some short-term acclimatization to occur prior to the intense final days. In Chicago, conditions during the peak of the 1999 heat wave were very similar to those during the 1995 heat wave peak, especially the extreme nocturnal conditions of temperatures and humidity. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the reduction in the heat wave death toll in Chicago from about 700 in 1995 to 114 in 1999 is due solely to meteorological differences between the two heat waves. In St. Louis, the 1999 heat wave was intense for a much longer duration than the 1995 heat wave, thus partially explaining the increase in heat-related deaths there from the 1995 event to the 1999 event.

An examination of heat wave response efforts in both Chicago and St. Louis leads to the conclusion that both cities were quite effective at mitigating their respective heat wave mortality rates, which in the 1999 event were almost exactly the same in both metropolitan areas. This represents a great improvement for the city of Chicago compared to the 1995 heat wave. Suggestions are made for further improving municipal heat wave response efforts based on the 1999 experience.

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Kenneth E. Kunkel, Stanley A. Changnon, and James R. Angel

The 1993 record-breaking summer flood in the Upper Mississippi River Basin resulted from an unprecedentedly persistent heavy rain pattern. Rainfall totals for the Upper Mississippi River Basin were, by a large margin, the largest of this century for the 2-, 3-, 4-, and 12- month periods encompassing the 1993 summer. The totals for these periods are estimated to have a probability of occurrence of less than 0.005 yr−1 In addition, the number of reporting stations receiving weekly totals in excess of 100 mm (events identified in a previous study as being closely correlated with floods) was the largest in at least the last 45 yr. Other conditions contributing to the flood include above-normal soil moisture levels at the beginning of June 1993; large-sized areas of moderate to heavy rains; occurrence of rain areas oriented along the main stems of major rivers; a large number of localized extreme daily rainfall totals (greater than 150 mm); and below-normal evaporation. The large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns during the summer of 1993 were similar to the patterns associated with past heavy rain events, although much more persistent than past events.

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Scott E. Stevens, Carl J. Schreck III, Shubhayu Saha, Jesse E. Bell, and Kenneth E. Kunkel


Motor vehicle crashes remain a leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and weather is frequently cited as a contributing factor in fatal crashes. Previous studies have investigated the link between these crashes and precipitation typically using station-based observations that, while providing a good estimate of the prevailing conditions on a given day or hour, often fail to capture the conditions present at the actual time and location of a crash. Using a multiyear, high-resolution radar reanalysis and information on 125,012 fatal crashes spanning the entire continental United States over a 6-yr period, we find that the overall risk of a fatal crash increases by approximately 34% during active precipitation. The risk is significant in all regions of the continental United States, and it is highest during the morning rush hour and during the winter months.

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Kenneth E. Kunkel, Stanley A. Changnon, Carl G. Lonnquist, and James R. Angel

The Midwestern Climate Information System (MICIS) is a near real-time system which provides access to a wide variety of climate information products. These include current temperature and precipitation data for several hundred midwestern United States stations, historical temperature, and precipitation for about 1500 stations, climate summaries, long-range predictions, regional soil moisture estimates, and crop yield risk assessments. The region covered includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Because agriculture is a major sector of the Midwestern economy and is sensitive to climate fluctuations, some products have been oriented to the needs of agriculture. However, many other products have general applicability. Users of this system include agribusinesses and researchers.

MICIS has several unique features: a) regional coverage provides climatic information for a major part of the United States corn and soybean belt; b) daily temperature and precipitation data are obtained daily from an average of 500 stations providing an up-to-date assessment of current climatic conditions; c) process models provide an estimate of potential impacts on soil moisture and corn and soybean yields.

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Kenneth E. Kunkel, Stanley A. Changnon, Beth C. Reinke, and Raymond W. Arritt

A brief but intense heat wave developed in the central and eastern United States in mid-July 1995, causing hundreds of fatalities. The most notable feature of this event was the development of very high dewpoint temperature (T d ) over the southern Great Lakes region and the Upper Mississippi River Basin. At many locations, hourly values of T d set new records. The combination of high air and dewpoint temperatures resulted in daily average apparent temperatures exceeding 36°C over a large area on some days. A comparison with past heat waves shows that this was the most intense short-duration heat wave in at least the last 48 years at some locations in the southern Great Lakes region and Upper Mississippi River Basin. An analysis of historical data for Chicago, where the majority of fatalities occurred, indicates the intensity of this heat wave was exceeded only by a few periods in the 1910s and 1930s. Impacts in the Chicago urban center were exacerbated by an urban heat island that raised nocturnal temperatures by more than 2°C. An analysis of radiosonde data indicates that maximum daytime boundary layer mixing depths were only a few hundred meters in the core region of the heat wave. Simulations using a single-column version of a three-dimensional mesoscale model strongly suggest that this contributed to the very high values of T d since soil moisture in the central United States was near to above average and evapotransporation was likely high, causing a rapid moistening of the shallow boundary layer.

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Kenneth E. Kunkel, Stanley A. Changnon, Steven E. Hollinger, Beth C. Reinke, Wayne M. Wendland, and James R. Angel

Effective responses by government agencies, businesses, and private industry to climate disasters such as the disastrous Mississippi River flood of 1993 hinge on the regional availability of diverse up-to-date weather, climate, and water information. In addition to the obvious need for accurate forecasts and warnings of severe weather and floods, other types of meteorologically based information can contribute to effective responses. Some examples of information requested during and after the 1993 flood include 1) hydroclimatic assessments of the magnitude of the event, 2) agricultural assessments of the impacts of heavy rains and flooding on corn and soybean production, and 3) probabilistic outlooks of the recurrence of flooding based on soil moisture conditions. Quick responses to these climate information needs necessitate 1) a real-time climate monitoring system, 2) physical models to assess effects and impacts, and 3) scientific expertise to address complex issues.

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