As heat ramps up, K-State climatologist shares wild weather facts

·4 min read

Jun. 10—The heat is on in northeast Kansas.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Topeka are forecasting hot and humid conditions for the Manhattan area through the weekend. Temperatures will crest at 90 degrees Friday, with a slight chance of thunderstorms lingering Friday morning through Saturday morning. Heat index values are forecast to be well over 100 degrees Thursday and Friday.

K-State climatologist Mary Knapp said nowhere in Kansas is expected to get as hot as the record high temperature for the state, set on July 18, 1936. On that date, residents of Fredonia observed a scorching 121 degrees; that same temperature would be recorded by people in Alton, Kansas, on July 24 of the same year.

Despite the record highs in 1936, Knapp said 1934 was actually the hottest summer in Kansas with an average daily high temperature of 83.2 degrees.

Manhattan has observed several stretches of 100-plus degree days, the longest being in 1901 with 20 days in July at or above 100 degrees.

While discussing the heat, Knapp, who has been with K-State about 40 years, shared a number of weather facts and records from other seasons.

Knapp said Tuesday marked the 55th anniversary of a historic severe weather event in Kansas. On June 8, 1966, a large tornado swept through the heart of Topeka, carving a diagonal path 22 miles long and up to a half-mile wide in some places. The tornado skipped over Burnett's Mound, struck Washburn University head-on, and side-swiped the state Capitol building before dissipating northeast of the city. Seventeen people were killed, hundreds more were injured, and about 800 homes were completely destroyed.

About an hour before the twister in Topeka, Knapp said a tornado spawned from a separate supercell thunderstorm struck Manhattan. The tornado formed over Marshall Field at Fort Riley, scattering personnel records and overturning an office trailer. It would go on to destroy 11 homes, damage 328 others, and injure 65 people. The tornado caused $5 million in damage, including nearly $2 million to buildings on the Kansas State University campus.

The Manhattan tornado on June 8, 1966, would later be rated an EF-3, with wind speeds between 136 and 165 miles per hour. The Topeka tornado received the highest possible rating for intensity based on damage, EF-5, with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour.

As severe weather season continues for Kansas and the Great Plains, Knapp said flooding is another major concern. She said Manhattan has seen its share of severe floods.

"Comparing floods is difficult," Knapp said. "The 1951 flood resulted in more damage in town, while the 1993 flood still had incredible damage and lasted for a much longer time."

Knapp said during the 1993 flood, ground water was so high in Manhattan that some people with sump pumps — devices that sit in basements to prevent flooding — reported they were operating constantly from the first of July through early August "in a vain attempt to keep their basements dry."

Another side effect of severe weather is hail. Knapp said the largest hailstone recorded in Kansas was on Sept. 3, 1970. A hailstone measuring 5.7 inches in diameter — larger than softball-size — and weighing 1.67 pounds was found in Coffeyville in southeast Kansas.

Regarding other forms of frozen precipitation, Knapp said Kansas "isn't known for getting a lot of snow," although the state receives snowfall regularly. The largest annual snowfall for Manhattan is 49.5 inches, set in 1960. The town of Goodland set the record for annual snow observed in Kansas, with 86.2 inches in 1984.

The biggest snowfall in a 24-hour period was measured on March 28, 2009, when 30 inches fell at an NWS cooperative weather station just northwest of the city of Pratt in central Kansas.

"Kansas is famous for its wide temperature swings and quickly changing weather," Knapp said. "Tribune may be notable for one particularly wild swing in May of 1931."

On May 15 of that year, Knapp said the daytime temperature hit 94 degrees, and a week later, on May 21 the high temperature was only 37 degrees. Eight inches of snow also fell.

"Three days later, on May 24, 1931, the high rebounded to 91 degrees," Knapp said.

Knapp said for gardeners, the end of winter is usually marked by the last spring freeze.

"In Manhattan, as in the rest of Kansas, that can vary widely," Knapp said.

According to Knapp, the earliest "last freeze" for the Manhattan area was on March 10, 2012. The latest-occurring final freeze was noted in 1905, on May 27. Also in 1905, the record low temperature for the state was recorded. Residents of Lebanon observed a temperature of -40 below on Feb. 13.