Central Oklahoma Ice Storm

First a Tropical Storm, Now an Ice Storm…

We in central Oklahoma just finished the bulk of an episodic, two-day ice storm that rendered nearly a half million residents without electricity, the largest figure in state history. Schools are closing for at least two days — more because of power outages and direct blockages by fallen trees than from driving restraints imposed by ice. Around half an inch to an inch of solid accumulation is quite common, busting branches and sometimes taking down whole trees. I could hear the distinctive crack-n-crash sounds in the woods around my property for much of the day, and saw several large branches topple — an experience common to anyone outdoors across several central OK counties.

For the Christmas-1987 ice storm, I was an OU student out of town for Christmas break, so my last experience with this magnitude of ice or greater was in Dallas, New Year’s Day, 1979. That was worse, with more ice (1.5 to 2 inches) in a city of a million people, and 600,000 people without power. I vividly recall that Saturday night and Sunday morning, staying awake until after 3 a.m. to the noise of crashing limbs and the flashes of both lightning and power line blowouts. After we lost power, I remember listening in a transistor radio to Ray Ward, Dallas Power and Light spokesman, describing the mounting troubles throughout the night in various interviews. Another vivid memory from that event was all the yankee license plates (Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc.) that I saw on vehicles that slid off Central Expressway and other area roads. [This was during a peak of the mass exodus of jobs to the Sun Belt from the Rust Belt.]

This Okie event definitely brought back some memories and points for comparison. A key difference is that the ground was warmer here, and the roads stayed largely ice-free. Unlike the 1987 event in Norman, or the 1979 Dallas storm, travel was inhibited in the latest ice storm only by fallen trees and by powerless signals. Nonetheless, while this ice storm isn’t as severe in terms of absolute amount as that Dallas event, or separate but similarly thick ice accumulations several years ago in northwestern and southeastern Oklahoma, its location over relatively thickly populated areas has created a considerable mess.

Several rounds of mostly spotty, convective rains atop the subfreezing air caused this event. The heaviest thunderstorms, overnight last night, produced very short-lived and localized rain rates to near an inch an hour, with more common rates of .10-.25 inches over a larger area. Still, rain rates didn’t add up to total accumulation, because there still was obvious runoff in the heaviest thunderstorm cores.

Here in Norman, we had a 36-hour period where no more than a couple of hours passed between seeing lightning or hearing thunder, all with below freezing surface temperatures, thanks in part to a series of perturbations in southwesterly flow aloft, and their destabilizing effects above an elevated plume of low level moisture. Last night, one of those lightning strikes hit in the woods next to my house, contributing to the first downed tree branch of many (either through direct strike, or through percussive effects).

This hasn’t been Chamber of Commerce weather. We’ve had some power outages, but luckily, not the multi-day ones (as we did in Dallas in ’79 or others in Oklahoma have currently). My neighborhood, while liberally festooned with downed branches and trees, still fared better than those of folks in the main part of Norman and north-northeastward across parts of Oklahoma and Lincoln Counties, where the heaviest storm totals were. Thousands upon thousands of trees and large limbs are down; and once the ice melts, it will look as if a hurricane selectively hammered only the vegetation.

Farther north, across much of KS, MO, southeast NE and IA, the ground is much colder; half as much rain will create much more travel problems and still take down some trees and limbs.

The sounds of chain saws — including mine — will permeate the air for a couple of weeks to come. Much as in parts of Dade County FL, after Hurricane Andrew, trees around these parts are going to look shorter, really haggard and imbalanced for a few years, until younger branches and trees grow enough to fill in the canopy.

I’m not going to complain too much. Those of us who choose to make our home in the Sooner State either do, or damn well should, accept that these things do happen here, and learn to cope. We get ice storms, deep droughts, 100+ degree heat waves, dust storms, tornadoes, tremendous flash floods, giant hail and derechos. All these combine to make life hard on trees in these parts, and in combination with poor soil, explain why we don’t have many tall or fast-growing trees. This is living in Oklahoma (and, when applicable, adjacent north Texas and Kansas). We deal with it and forge forward. I make lemonade from lemons by doing both documentary and artistic photography, though my shift and sleep schedule won’t allow much opportunity to get out and chronicle this event in images as thoroughly as other folks.

And for those of us who are meteorologists, we also learn as much as possible about these events in order to better predict them in the future. Fortunately, this one generally was well forecast; and the Norman forecast office deserves a good deal of credit for discussing ice potential a few days out in hazardous weather outlooks, then ramping up threat levels to an ice storm warning well before the first trees fell.

I’ve posted a small gallery of photography from the event, including the ones above, at this location online.


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