North American prairie weather has always been noted for great daily, seasonal, and interannual variability of temperature and precipitation. The Great Plains and prairies of North America host what must be an Olympics of weather—from the jungle-like heat of summer to the tundra-like cold of Arctic winter. As the only relatively level stretch of continental land in the world which reaches from the Arctic nearly to the tropics, inland North America is a stage which hosts a meteorological tour de force. Omaha, Nebraska, lies near the middle of this land mass.
Even against this background, some of the storminess which visited the area during the middle and late 1990s raised eyebrows. In 1997, a late October snow-thunderstorm lasted eight hours, and poured a foot of half-melted (and almost entirely unforecast) snow the consistency of fresh cement on Omaha. The heavy, sodden snow froze to the stately old maples and elms which frame Omaha’s older neighborhoods, stripping many of them like overripe bananas.
At three in the morning, homeowners emerged from their beds to scrape the remains of ice-shattered trees off the power and telephone lines. Loud cracks from splitting trees competed with the sounds of explosions in the distance, some of them from the thunder following blue puffs of snow-shrouded lightning, the others from explosions of electrical substations short-circuited by ice-caked tree branches. It was difficult, during the storm’s tumult, to tell the difference. For a night, the world seemed to come apart. The next day, nearly everyone’s power was out, and Omaha’s trees looked as if they had been to war, as an announcer intoned over a battery-powered radio: “Better take a picture of this. In thirty years, no one will believe you!” Electricity was out across most of the city for several days; because most gas furnaces use electrical ignition, heating also was unavailable for most homes.
Two summers later, during August of 1999, Omaha was doused with 10.5 inches of rain in a similar large thunderstorm. Sydney, Australia, had nearly a