The United States is home to some of the wildest weather in the world. Extreme blizzards, destructive tornadoes, mammoth hurricanes and brutal floods are commonplace year after year – sometimes in the same place.
The direct access to both frigid air from the Arctic and tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico frequently places the U.S. in a fierce battleground, where the competing air masses conjure up violent storms.
Think the weather in your city is wild? See if it made our list of seven crazy U.S. weather cities.
The Mile-High City habitually sees extreme temperature swings during the summer and fall, with fluctuations between winter and summer seemingly routine. Denver and Boulder went from 90s to snow in barely 24 hours last September, and dropped from 82 to snow in roughly eight hours in between Oct. 9 and 10, 2019.
We looked back over a decade’s worth of data, and found that large temperature swings occur two or three times a year on average in Denver, with a host of roller-coaster weather in the past 10 years.
If the challenge of dressing for the weather wasn’t enough, Denver averages 54 inches of snow per year. The city is often hit by hefty hailstorms during the spring months, and even occasionally faces the threat of tornadoes.
Bismarck, N.D., is home to nearly 75,000 people. It’s at the northern apex of the Great Plains Tornado Alley, and has had several close calls with monstrous twisters. An F5 whirred just south of the city on May 29, 1953, a year after an F4 slipped just to the north. Another F3 tornado breezed south of downtown on July 30, 1981; a swarm of funnels in November of 2000 damaged homes in and around town, followed by a blizzard later in the week.
If severe thunderstorms aren’t your thing, you best embrace snow and extreme cold. Bismarck averages 51 inches of snow annually, which often falls into late April or May. The city also typically sees half a dozen days each year dipping below minus-20 and has seen the mercury fall as low as minus-45.
Like Denver, Bismarck can witness tremendous temperature swings. “In North Dakota there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to wear both shorts and a winter coat on the same day,” wrote Mark Schneider, a meteorologist with the North Dakota Atmospheric Research Board, in an essay. “After all, large temperature swings are a way of life here.”
Partly cloudy with a chance of tornadoes? Roughly 300 tornadoes have struck the four counties that make up Oklahoma City – Oklahoma, Cleveland, Canadian, and Pottawatomie – since 1950. Some places have been hit by multiple F5 tornadoes. If you live in the city limits, odds are you’ll find yourself sheltering from tornadoes two or three times per year.
In the Sooner State, tornadoes are a way of life – and the weather forecast is often a matter of life or death. Tornado season in Oklahoma runs from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.
The spring and fall are especially turbulent months in Oklahoma City. It’s not uncommon to have a 60-degree temperature spread across the state, with subfreezing weather in the Panhandle and summer warmth in the southeast. Extreme temperature crashes are regular. Autumn isn’t a gradual transition, but rather a battle between summer and winter.
Oklahoma City has also seen a number of flash flood emergencies in recent years, while a late-October ice storm knocked out power to 300,000. The city averages just under 8 inches of snow per year. And thundersnow and thundersleet aren’t all that unusual.
Salt Lake City
Like Denver, Salt Lake City averages about 56 inches of snow annually. In July, the city’s average high is close to 93 degrees, with highs in the 30s the norm in winter. The city’s elevation – 4,200 feet – and relatively dry climate allow for its large seasonal temperature fluctuations.
Severe weather isn’t overly common in the state capital, though an F2 tornado on Aug. 11, 1999 did kill one person downtown and cause $170 million in damages. Utah can see occasionally vicious squall lies too – like the serial derecho that brought 100 mph winds to parts of the state last June.
That derecho heralded a dramatic seasonal reversal. On June 5, 2020, Salt Lake City snagged its earliest triple-digit reading ever recorded. By Monday, snow was falling in the mountains nearby.
Among the most fascinating elements of Salt Lake City’s weather are rotor winds. On Sept. 8, “downslope” winds gusting 100 mph accelerated down the Wasatch Mountains just north of Salt Lake City. The strongest gusts were preceded by sounds as billows of wind rolled down the slope of the mountain face. Some 180,000 people lost power.
On a day-to-day basis, Chicago’s weather may not seem out of the ordinary. Typical summer temperatures peak in the 80s, wintertime lows in the teens, and precipitation averages are middle of the road – about 37 inches of rain per year, and roughly three feet of snow.
But the city deals with practically every kind of extreme weather. Take snowstorms. The Groundhog’s Day blizzard of 2011 dropped 20.2 inches of snow in two days, stranding hundreds of drivers on Lakeshore Drive as the storm’s fury crippled the city. Lightning struck buildings downtown during the height of the storm, delivering a now-viral clip of The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore reacting in real time.
The city can experience brutal temperatures, too. In 2019, the Windy City bottomed out at minus-23 degrees, and manages to dip below minus-10 most years. Summertime highs often flirt with 100 degrees, but are capped by the moderating influence of Lake Michigan. An infamous heat wave in 1995 was blamed for at least 700 deaths.
Chicago also occasionally sees derechos, such as the violent thunderstorm complex that unleashed 80 mph winds in August, as well as tornadoes. (And for those who have never heard them, Chicago’s unique tornado sirens are extra creepy.)
Any hardy New Englander will tell you that the weather in Boston is like a sampler pack of Mother Nature’s irritability. In 2015, a whopping 94 inches of snow fell in just a month’s time, remembered as the infamous “blizzard blitz.” Back to back to back snowstorms and blizzards pummeled the city, the ever-narrowing streets converted into one-way roads; the last of the snow didn’t melt until mid-July.
Boston encounters “nor’easters” every fall, or sprawling low pressure systems known for their heavy precipitation, wind and coastal flooding. Winds in these storms often exceed 70 or 80 mph. In the springtime, late-season snowstorms or “backdoor cold fronts” can keep Boston chilly while central and western Massachusetts enjoys sunshine and mildness. Living in Boston isn’t for the faint of heart.
Once in a while, the city is even faced with severe weather. On Aug. 4, 2015, golf ball-sized hail associated with a supercell thunderstorm pelted the city. A year prior, Logan International Airport narrowly missed out on an unwarned EF2 tornado that struck the seaside city of Revere.
Ever heard of recess at minus-40? It’s pretty common to see temperatures that low in the wintertime. In fact, lows of minus-50 used to occur virtually every winter. Now, it’s becoming less common due to climate change.
At temperatures that low, “ice fog” can result from breathing. Moisture in your breath can actually form a cloud with light winds and temperatures below minus-35.
The city’s all-time minimum of minus-66 was set on Jan. 14, 1934.
But believe it or not, summers can actually be warm. Fairbanks hits 90 once every four years or so. The city’s all-time record of 96 degrees was set in 1969.
If the wild temperatures weren’t enough to jar you, consider that Fairbanks’ high latitude means it experiences extreme changes in daylight over the course of the year. The sun is up for only 3 hours 42 minutes on the winter solstice in December, but only sets for 2 hours 12 minutes during the longest days in June.
That allows for spectacular views of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, in the wintertime.