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Severe Thunderstorms Head to Midwest, South, and Northeast

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Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A widespread outbreak of severe thunderstorms could make for a tense couple of nights to welcome the unofficial start of spring in the Midwest and parts of the East Coast. Forecasters expect dangerous thunderstorms to develop in the Midwest on Tuesday night, February 28, and slowly make their way east before another round of storms flares up late in the day on Wednesday. Tornadoes, damaging winds, and large hail are all possible, though the greatest threat that communities face could be all of those hazards occurring at night.

This severe weather outbreak will follow a classic pattern that’s common during the spring. The fuse that will set off the atmospheric fireworks is a developing low-pressure system over the Plains that has made its way toward the Great Lakes today. Winds circulating around the low are funneling warm, unstable air north from the Gulf of Mexico, bathing the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys with unseasonably muggy air. This soupy air serves as the fuel to power thunderstorms triggered by the lift from the low-pressure system and its fronts. Making matters worse is that strong winds through the atmosphere will help those thunderstorms turn severe. As of press time, tornado watches have been issued for Illinois and parts of Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.

The Storm Prediction Center’s forecast for severe thunderstorms on Tuesday, February 28, 2017. Warmer colors indicate a greater risk for severe weather. Image Credit: Storm Prediction Center

 
The severe thunderstorms will thump communities in several rounds, with each round carrying its own safety risks. The latest forecast from the Storm Prediction Center calls for the worst weather to unfold from Arkansas to Ohio during the evening and nighttime hours on Tuesday. Thunderstorms are bubbling up on the western part of the risk area and working their way east. Tornadoes are possible, and some could be on the stronger side. As the evening wears on and the cold front draws closer, these discrete thunderstorms should merge into a squall line, at which point the main hazard will transition to damaging straight-line winds. Small tornadoes are possible along the leading edge of the squall line.

The Storm Prediction Center’s forecast for severe thunderstorms on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Warmer colors indicate a greater risk for severe weather. Image Credit: Storm Prediction Center

 
Wednesday’s storm threat looks a little more straightforward than what we’re likely to see on Tuesday night, but it’s no less dangerous. Meteorologists expect more squall lines to form along the cold front as it approaches the Ohio Valley and the Appalachian Mountains on Wednesday evening. The lines of storms could produce damaging winds and a few tornadoes as they sweep eastward. It remains to be seen how strong the storms will be once they cross the mountains—the steep hills and valleys often take the oomph out of approaching storms, but they could regenerate once they cross back over flatter terrain.

When we talk about severe thunderstorms, the term “damaging winds” refers to thunderstorm wind gusts that reach 58 mph or stronger, and “large hail” is a hailstone the size of a quarter or larger. We consider tornadoes “strong” when they cause damage that’s rated EF-2 or higher on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. It’s important to remember that damaging wind gusts can easily cause as much damage as a tornado, but over a much larger area.

Severe thunderstorms are dangerous any time of the day, but they can pose a greater threat to your life when they occur at night. You’re less likely to receive life-saving severe weather warnings at night when you’re asleep than you are during the day when you’re more aware of your surroundings. If you live anywhere expecting severe weather, make sure you have a way to be notified of hazardous weather at night. Most smartphones have a wireless emergency alert (WEA) feature that sounds an annoying (but useful) tone that could wake even the deepest sleeper when a warning is issued for your current location. Thanks to the widespread use of smartphones, wireless emergency alerts have saved countless lives in the past couple of years.

But, there’s a catch. In order for wireless emergency alerts to work, your cell phone has to be charged, and it needs to be able to receive a signal. It’s always a good idea to have a couple of backups just in case. A NOAA Weather Radio is a smart albeit slightly outdated investment to make. These devices are like smoke detectors for the weather. You can program a county’s unique code into the device and set it to sound a loud tone when a watch or warning is issued for the location(s) of your choosing. If all else fails, you can also leave your television or radio on loud enough that you can hear emergency alert tones if a warning is issued for your area.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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