Wild weather of 2023: Look back at the year's biggest stories

The year's worst weather events were deadly wildfires that scorched countless acres around the world, record-breaking hurricanes, heatwaves that scorched the Southwest, a polar vortex that froze the Northeast and floods that washed away homes and businesses.

As people around the world pause to wonder what lies ahead in the new year, it’s difficult not to think about what the past 365 days have brought us. There have been a lot of triumphs in the world of weather and science this year. There have also been numerous disasters that made headlines in 2023.

Among those monstrous weather events were deadly wildfires that scorched countless acres around the world, record-breaking hurricanes, heatwaves that scorched the Southwest, a polar vortex that froze the Northeast and floods that washed away homes and businesses.

Here are some of the biggest weather stories of 2023.

Historic hurricanes

It was a very busy hurricane season in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans this year. For the most part, they stayed far out to sea and didn't affect land. However, a few did make direct hits and left a catastrophe in their wake.

Hurricane Otis - Mexico

Hurricane Otis dominated the headlines in October after the hurricane made landfall near Acapulco, Mexico.

The "nightmare scenario" began when the storm experienced nearly unprecedented explosive development in a matter of hours, strengthening from a Category 1 to a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, catching about 1 million people in the storm’s path off-guard.

Dozens of people were killed, and widespread damage was reported across the region, with several hotels in the popular travel destination of Acapulco receiving significant damage.

Hurricane Otis is now the most powerful hurricane to ever strike the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Hurricane Hilary - California

Hurricane Hilary reached Category 4 strength as it approached Mexico and the U.S., and made landfall along the southern Baja California Peninsula on Aug. 20 as a tropical storm.

Hilary’s largest impacts in the U.S. were felt across Southern California and the Desert Southwest with flooding rains, mudslides and funnel clouds. Because of the wide-ranging impacts, states of emergency were issued in California and Nevada – the two states where the worst impacts were seen.

Winds in parts of Southern California topped 80 mph, and several roads needed to be closed due to mudslides and rockslides. 

As if a tropical system wasn’t enough, Southern California was rocked by a magnitude 5.1 earthquake as the storm brought catastrophic effects to the region.

Hurricane Idalia - Florida

Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in the Southeast were left picking up the pieces after Hurricane Idalia made landfall along Florida’s Big Bend region as a major Category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 mph on Aug. 30.

The deadly storm made a historically-rare landfall in Keaton Beach. It spawned tornadoes, brought down trees and power lines and ripped the roofs away from homes and buildings across the region.

First responders needed to conduct several water rescues, and President Joe Biden approved Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' request for a major disaster declaration in affected Florida counties.

The FOX Forecast Center said Idalia was the strongest hurricane to strike the Big Bend area – especially near Cedar Key – in 125 years, dating back to an unnamed 1896 storm.

Tornado brings death, destruction to Mississippi town

The town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, was leveled in March when a large tornado carved a path of destruction across part of the state.

The twister that killed more than a dozen people was rated EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale by the National Weather Service and had peak winds of 195 mph. The tornado spared very little that was in its path, leading one resident who survived the storm to describe the scene as an "apocalypse." 

Despite the devastation, stories of survival revealed the heroic actions taken by Tracy Hardin. She was working at a restaurant when the tornado hit. A panicked employee and flickering lights signaled the cyclone’s approach. Hardin sprang into action, shouting for employees, customers and her husband to seek shelter in a walk-in cooler. That cooler was the only thing left standing at the restaurant after the storm. Her quick thinking saved nine lives. Hardin received the FOX Nation Weather Award for Courage in November.

Deadly wildfires around the world

Millions of acres of land around the world were scorched due to hundreds of wildfires that turned the sky black and orange, forced countless residents from their homes and forever changed pristine landscapes.

Canada wildfires

Canada was hit especially hard by wildfires that raged across the entire country.

According to Natural Resources Canada, more than 6,600 wildfires burned nearly 45.5 million acres of land in 2023.

In August, wildfires forced the evacuation of 20,000 people living in the Northwest Territories capital city of Yellowknife.

Several wildfires also erupted across Quebec, with many blamed on lightning strikes from severe weather that produced thunderstorms across the province.

Europe wildfires

Europe also experienced wildfires this year, with notable blazes burning out of control in places like Spain, Italy and Greece.

Thousands of people were forced to flee the Greek island of Rhodes as fires raged across the region while temperatures soared this summer.

Hundreds of firefighters on the ground and in the air worked to contain and extinguish the fires, and thousands of acres went up in flames.

Firefighters from across Europe helped with firefighting efforts while thousands tried to escape the flames. 

Flights to Greece were canceled, and airplanes were used to evacuate residents and tourists to other locations while the fires burned.

On the island of Evia, a terrifying video showed a firefighting airplane that crashed when one of its wings clipped some trees and caused it to plunge into a mountain. The two people on board were killed.

Hawaii wildfires

In August, Hawaii experienced the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history when at least 100 people were killed in the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui.

The National Weather Service office in Honolulu issued Fire Weather Warnings before the fires. 

Emergency managers have been accused of failing to use all their tools to warn residents of the unfolding disaster. Officials said they didn't use outdoor warning sirens because they feared residents would have fled uphill toward the flames rather than toward the ocean for safety.

Residents were allowed to start returning to their homes one month after the disaster.

Canadian wildfire smoke invades US

As wildfires raged in Canada at the start of the summer, smoke from the blazes invaded the U.S., turning day into night and leading to unhealthy air quality conditions in cities across America.

In June, smoke engulfed major cities along the Interstate 95 corridor from Boston through New York City, Philadelphia and Washington.

The Big Apple experienced its worst air quality ever recorded, and visibility dropped to a half-mile when skyscrapers in Manhattan became shrouded in the dense smoke.

The sky in the city turned an eerie orange color, and people with health issues were urged to remain indoors until the smoke cleared out.

The sky in Florida turned from blue to a milky haze in October when smoke from Canadian wildfires made its way all the way to the Sunshine State, reaching as far south as Miami.

Hundreds dead in Southwest summer heat wave

It was a deadly summer across the Southwest as the region spent weeks with temperatures well above 100 degrees from Arizona to Texas.

According to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health in Arizona, 579 heat-associated deaths have been confirmed since April 11, 2023, with 56 deaths still under investigation. The number of confirmed deaths is well above last year’s record of 435 deaths. It also marks the seventh consecutive year of record heat-related deaths since the county began keeping track in 2006.

Phoenix also saw its hottest month ever recorded in July, with an average temperature of 114.7 degrees.

The historic heat wave also baked Texas, with cities across the Lone Star State reporting triple-digit temperatures for days on end.

Atmospheric River Storms swamp the West

The beginning of 2023 was a destructive and deadly time for the West, with California being hit hard by a series of atmospheric river storms that brought relentless rain and flooding to lower elevations while mountain communities saw record-breaking snowfall totals that yanked the state out of a historic drought.

More than 20 people were killed during the storms, and Biden approved both a major disaster declaration and an emergency declaration for the Golden State.

Most of California saw several feet of rainfall over a period of several weeks. This led to numerous reports of flooding and mudslides washing away roads and vehicles and forcing thousands of residents to flee while the region was battered.

Some parts of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, such as Mammoth Mountain, were buried under nearly 60 feet of snow. Residents living in the higher elevations of the range in San Bernardino County were trapped for weeks when storm after storm dropped feet of snow across the region.

New England slammed with historic flooding

Millions of people across the Northeast and New England experienced catastrophic and historic flooding in July, with Vermont experiencing its worst flooding event since 1927.

The city manager in Montpelier issued an ominous warning to residents that a dam in the area was at risk of reaching capacity and being overtopped, sending large amounts of water rushing into the state’s already-flooded capital.

New York and Pennsylvania were also hit hard by the flooding in July.

Dozens of water rescues were conducted north of New York City during the deadly flooding, and roadways were washed out after more than a half-foot of rain fell in only a few hours.

Northeast experiences frigid polar vortex

In February, a short-lived but impressive and dangerous polar vortex invaded the Northeast and New England, plunging temperatures across the region into negative territory.

Boston experienced its coldest morning in decades, with a morning low temperature on Feb. 4 of -10 degrees and a wind chill of -39 degrees.

That wasn’t even the coldest wind chill.

Frenchville, Maine, recorded a wind chill of -61 degrees.

It was so cold in Maine during the polar vortex that residents reported hearing and seeing trees exploding from the sap and water inside expanding.

Iceland's volcano erupts

Weeks of earthquakes in Iceland culminated in an explosive volcanic eruption just north of the seaside town of Grindavík in December.

In early November, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) reported a swarm of thousands of earthquakes that raised fears of an impending volcanic eruption. Those fears then prompted officials to evacuate the town of Grindavík and the popular tourist destination Blue Lagoon closed its facilities.

Over the following days and weeks, evacuated residents were briefly allowed to return to their homes to gather what they could before being told to flee again as large cracks began to develop through the center of town.

On Dec. 18, a strong earthquake rocked the region, and the volcano erupted about an hour later. Videos and photos from the area showed the power of the eruption, and an airline passenger arriving in Iceland was able to capture spectacular footage of the eruption from the air.