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 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.
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.