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.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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