9 Powerful Facts About Derechos

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Think about the worst thunderstorm you've ever witnessed. Having trouble remembering the specifics? That's because in the summertime, thunderstorms are a relatively mundane occurrence, even for those of us with a flair for exaggeration. There are some storms, though, that rise to a whole new level; a derecho is one of those storms. Derechos can sweep across entire states and leave behind more damage than a tornado, yet they're relatively unknown by anyone other than weather enthusiasts.

1. DERECHOS ARE MASSIVE.

A squall line or bow echo is a group of thunderstorms that are connected to one another and take on a bow-shaped look on weather radar. A squall line that forms under the right conditions can mature into a small but powerful storm system in its own right, developing tiny high- and low-pressure centers that can help drive the thunderstorms for hundreds of miles.

Weather radar showing a derecho, or squall line, in Missouri
A radar image of an intense derecho in Missouri on May 8, 2009.
Gibson Ridge

A derecho is a long-lived squall line that produces a swath of wind damage more than 200 miles long. People who go through derechos sometimes compare them to hurricanes because of the strength of the winds and the amount of damage they leave behind. The term derecho, pronounced “duh-RAY-cho,” comes from the Spanish word for “straight,” a reference to the winds that make these storms so powerful.

All derechos are squall lines, but not all squall lines turn into derechos. The term derecho only applies when large amounts of land area see damage from a storm. But regular squall lines are nothing to sneeze at: A system that only affects three counties can be just as strong as one that affects three states.

2. DERECHOS GET THEIR BITE FROM COLD AIR.

What distinguishes a squall line from a normal thunderstorm is how the updraft and downdraft develop. The thunderstorms in a squall line form along the leading edge of the pool of cold air dragged to the ground by the downdraft. This dome-shaped cold pool tilts the updraft of warm, unstable air, preventing the updraft from suffocating on cool air. Air inside the cold pool beneath the storms can begin to circulate due to upper-level winds and friction with the ground, creating a dangerous feature called a rear-inflow jet. This jet of strong winds forms a few thousand feet above the ground and races toward the front of the thunderstorms, where it's shoved into the ground at the leading edge of the squall line, creating a derecho's signature winds.

3. STRAIGHT-LINE WINDS MAKE THEM DANGEROUS.

Tornadoes get all the attention during storm season, but the truth is that straight-line winds can cause just as much damage as a tornado, but over a much wider area than a tornado could ever cover. Just as the name suggests, straight-line winds hit the ground and move in the same direction, sometimes blowing for more than five minutes. The sudden impact and long duration of these winds can put serious stress on trees, buildings, and anything not tied down to the ground.

4. A DERECHO CAN CAUSE AS MUCH DAMAGE AS A TORNADO.

The aftermath of many derechos looks like what you'd see after a hurricane makes landfall. Some people even swear that they were hit by a tornado, not believing that a severe thunderstorm could make that big of a mess. The straight-line winds in a derecho can climb as high as 100 mph—strong enough to rip the roofs off of homes and completely destroy structures like barns and silos. Even a derecho that just barely qualifies as one can leave behind thousands of downed trees, long-lasting power outages, and annoying and costly cosmetic damage to homes and businesses.

5. SOME ARE MORE SERIOUS THAN OTHERS.

There are two different types of derechos. The most dangerous type is a progressive derecho. This is the kind of storm you see in the summer that speeds across entire states and leaves tornado-like damage in its wake. A serial derecho forms along a cold front. What a serial derecho lacks in focused damage it can make up for in the sheer amount of land exposed to severe wind gusts. It's possible for the length of a serial derecho to stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico as it moves from west to east. Serial derechos are most common during the fall and winter months.

6. HEAT WAVES BREED DERECHOS.

A relentless summertime heat wave can trigger multiple derechos in one week if conditions are just right. A high-pressure system that causes a brutal heat wave during the summer is sometimes called a “ring of fire” by meteorologists. The northern edge of one of these hot high-pressure systems can serve as the point for a progressive derecho to form. Once the derecho has developed, it races east or southeast along the outer edge of the high-pressure system until it dissipates or reaches the Atlantic Ocean.

7. THE CLOUDS CAN LOOK TERRIFYING.

The ominous clouds ahead of a derecho can tell you pretty quickly that this is no ordinary storm headed your way. Derechos are home to the most incredible shelf clouds nature can produce. A shelf cloud is a thick cloud that juts down from the sky, like a shelf hanging beneath the bottom of the storm. These clouds form when warm air rises up and condenses over the top edge of the cold pool that drives these storms. Shelf clouds are quite common, but the vivid shelf clouds in derechos are a spectacular, albeit scary, sight to see.

8. THE WIND COMES ON SUDDENLY.

One of the reasons derechos (or any intense squall line, really) can wreak such havoc is because they come on suddenly. There usually isn't much of a buildup to the strongest winds before they hit. Conditions can go from calm to chaos in a matter of seconds. The abruptness with which the winds can hit can even snap off the tops of trees as if they were chopped down by hand.

9. THERE ARE A FEW DERECHOS EVERY YEAR.

Derechos are most common in the central United States, but they can form just about anywhere around the world that experiences severe thunderstorms. Most derechos go unnoticed by those not directly affected by the storm, but some can have such a large impact on populated areas that they make national news.

One such storm was the derecho that formed on June 29, 2012. The storms started in Indiana, grew into a monstrous squall line in Ohio, and blew across the Appalachian Mountains virtually unimpeded before continuing on to the Atlantic Ocean. The Storm Prediction Center received hundreds of reports of wind damage after the storm. Washington D.C. and its suburbs were particularly hard-hit by the storm's winds. The derecho left millions without power, some for weeks after the storm, and multiple people lost their lives as a result of falling trees.

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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