How a Pinwheeling Weather System Brought Floods and Tornadoes to the Heartland

An infrared satellite image from the new GOES-16 satellite showing thunderstorms exploding in the Midwest on the evening of April 28, 2017.
An infrared satellite image from the new GOES-16 satellite showing thunderstorms exploding in the Midwest on the evening of April 28, 2017.
College of DuPage

An active month for severe weather went out with a bang this weekend when waves of powerful thunderstorms slammed the central United States, causing widespread flooding across the Midwest and several destructive tornadoes in Texas. The storm was so large and dynamic that it even caused a historic blizzard in western Kansas. The system responsible for the damage may be out of the picture now, but the dangerous effects of the tropical downpours will linger through next weekend.

A large, pinwheeling low-pressure system developed over the Plains late on Friday, April 28, 2017, setting the stage for a rambunctious couple of days in the American heartland. Counterclockwise winds flowing around the low-pressure system dragged deep plumes of tropical moisture northward from the Gulf of Mexico, allowing a warm, muggy air mass to crash into a cooler air mass lingering over states like Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The leading edge of this muggy air—a warm front—served as the focus for explosive thunderstorm development on Friday night and Saturday.


Estimated rainfall amounts between the evenings of April 27 and April 30, 2017. Areas in red saw five or more inches of rain. The pink shading indicates 10 or more inches of rain.
Dennis Mersereau

Unlike most organized batches of thunderstorms, which typically rage over one area for a few hours before moving on or dissipating, these torrents stuck around for almost an entire day, dumping copious amounts of rain over the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys as they rode along the boundary between warm to the south and cool to the north. This phenomenon, known as “training” due to thunderstorms rolling over the same areas like train cars on railroad tracks, is typically responsible for the worst flash flooding that storms can produce. Some communities recorded more than 10 inches of rain in just one day, which is more than double the normal amount of rain these areas see on average during the entire month of April.

At least 10 people died due to flooding across the Midwest, according to a report by The Weather Channel, and countless more residents were rescued from homes and vehicles when the water rose too quickly for them to evacuate on their own. Almost all of the confirmed flooding deaths this past weekend occurred in vehicles; the National Weather Service notes that nearly half of all flash flood deaths that occur every year are the result of people drowning in their vehicles.

The flooding isn’t over yet. Rivers in the region will continue to rise as the slow runoff overwhelms area waterways. At least two dozen gauges that measure water height in rivers across the areas affected by the heavy rain reported major flooding on Sunday, April 30, with numerous rivers expecting near-record flooding through the end of the week. The Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is expected to crest at 48.5 feet on Friday, May 5, just shy of the all-time record high water mark set at this location in 2016 and a little bit above the historic and devastating flooding measured in 1993. The Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, will likely reach major flood stage on Wednesday, May 3, though the crest will fall nearly 10 feet short of the record set back in 1993.

Flooding wasn’t the only concern with the storms this weekend. Meteorologists confirmed on Sunday that three tornadoes swept through the town of Canton, Texas, on Saturday evening, killing at least four people and injuring dozens more as the twisters caused significant damage.

Canton, a small town about 55 miles east of Dallas, Texas, saw all three tornadoes in the span of one hour, which is extremely rare but can happen from time to time. The first tornado hit the western side of town, while the second tornado struck the eastern side of town less than an hour later. A smaller tornado touched down just north of Canton in between the tracks of the two larger tornadoes.

The National Weather Service rated the first Canton tornado a violent EF-4, the second-highest level on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, while the second tornado received an EF-3 rating. Survey crews found that three additional tornadoes touched down in the area, including the one that struck the north side of Canton. All three small tornadoes produced minor damage and received the lowest rating, an EF-0.


Observed snowfall totals through the evening of April 30, 2017.

Dennis Mersereau

The eastern side of the storm may have seen a classic springtime severe weather outbreak, but the western side of the system didn’t quite get the memo that it’s the end of April. Portions of the Rocky Mountains and western Plains saw a significant snowstorm this past weekend. A large swath of western Kansas saw more than a foot of snow, with some areas coming close to 20 inches by the time the skies cleared out. This snowstorm ranks among the largest snowstorms ever recorded in western Kansas during the month of April, and could easily be the biggest snowstorm ever recorded so late in the year across areas that should see supercells instead of snow squalls.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Is the Heat Index Real?

MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images
MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images

Complaining about the humidity is a mainstay of small talk. “It’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity” is a common refrain around the South, just as “it’s a dry heat” is a go-to line in the desert Southwest. The clichés aren’t wrong on this one—a hot and humid day can have a dramatic effect on both your comfort and your health. We can measure this very real impact on your body using the heat index. 

The heat index is the temperature it feels like to your body when you factor in both the actual air temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. If the heat index is 103°F, that means that the combination of heat and humidity has a similar physical impact on your body as it would if the actual air temperature were 103°F. Even though it’s tempting to think of the heat index as an exaggerated temperature that only exists to make the heat sound worse than it really is, scientists came up with the measurements after decades of medical and meteorological research devoted to studying the impact of heat and humidity on the human body. It’s the real deal.

The dew point is an important component of the heat index. The dew point is the temperature at which the air would reach 100 percent relative humidity, or become fully saturated with moisture like on a foggy morning. Since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warmer air, lower dew points reflect lower moisture levels and higher dew points indicate higher moisture levels. Dew points below 60°F are comfortable, while readings reaching 70°F and even 80°F range from muggy to downright oppressive.

Measuring humidity on a hot day is important because moisture is how your body naturally cools itself off. Your sweat cools the surface of your skin through a process known as evaporative cooling. If the air is packed with moisture, it takes longer for your sweat to evaporate than it would in more normal conditions, preventing you from cooling off efficiently. The inability to lower your body temperature when it’s hot can quickly lead to medical emergencies like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is why the heat index is such an important measurement to pay attention to during the summer months.

The heat index is generally considered “dangerous” once the value climbs above 105°F, and your risk of falling ill increases the higher the heat index climbs.

Dry climates can have the opposite effect on your body, with the distinct lack of moisture in the air making it feel cooler to your body than it really is. Summers get oppressively hot in places like Arizona and Iraq, but the heat doesn’t affect residents as severely because the air is extremely dry. Dew points in desert regions can hover at or below 32°F even when the air temperature is well above 100°F, which is about as dry as it can get in the natural world.  

In 2016, a city in Kuwait measured the all-time highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in the eastern hemisphere, where temperatures climbed to a sweltering 129°F during the day on July 21, 2016. The dew point there at the same time was nearly 100 degrees cooler, leading to a heat index of just 110°F, much lower than the actual air temperature. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Extreme heat combined with extreme aridity can make your sweat evaporate too efficiently, quickly dehydrating you and potentially leading to medical emergencies similar to those you would experience in a much more humid region of the world. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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