Oklahoma packs a significant amount of climate variation into its 69,919 square miles. Overall, the state’s climate is heavily influenced by moisture blown from the Gulf of Mexico by the prevailing south and southeasterly winds, but its location in the central United States means its climate is categorized as “continental.”
Oklahoma takes its name from the Choctaw language.
Oklahoma’s average annual temperature varies between 58 F and 62 F, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, but these averages mask large variations. Summer months are hot, particularly in the southwest where a temperature of 120 F was recorded in Tipton in 1994. The southwest can expect 115 days with a temperature above 100 F each year. In winter, temperatures plummet and if you’re in the southeast in winter, expect to experience around 60 days of 32 F or below. (See references 3)
The variation in rainfall between the eastern and western parts of the state is one of the climate’s dominant features, according to Derek Arndt of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. Annual average precipitation varies from 56 inches in the extreme southeast to 17 inches in the western panhandle. Winter snowfall patterns, however, are almost a mirror image, with 30 inches falling in the panhandle on an average year compared with less than two inches in the east of the state. If you’re visiting in winter, watch out for freezing rain, which turns roads treacherous and can cause power outages by pulling down power lines.
Oklahoma is no stranger to climatic extremes of flood and drought. Flooding usually occurs in the spring and summer months when rainfall is at its peak and intense thunderstorms send huge amounts of water into the river systems. The state is largely reliant on rainfall for its usable water, meaning drought can occur relatively quickly, particularly in the west where precipitation is low. The most famous period of drought is probably that of the 1930s, when low rainfall and overgrazing turned much of western Oklahoma and neighboring states into the “Dust Bowl.”
One of the most distinctive features of Oklahoma’s climate is the tendency for tornadoes to appear. In fact, the state boasts one of the highest incidences of tornadoes per unit area in the world, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Spring is the peak tornado time, when warm moist air form the Gulf of Mexico meets cold air moving southwards from polar regions. More than 100 people died as a result of twisters in incidents in 1905 and 1947, while in May 1999 winds of 320 mph were recorded in a tornado that crashed through Oklahoma City.
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