Severe Thunderstorms Head to Midwest, South, and Northeast

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
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.

12 Powerful Facts About Hurricanes

iStock/shaunl
iStock/shaunl

Hurricanes are a stunning, and dangerous, display of nature’s power. They’re some of the largest and most intense storms nature can produce. Today, we know more about these systems and have an easier time measuring and predicting them than ever before. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to hurricanes. As the 2019 hurricane season kicks off (it runs from June 1st through November 30th), here are some things you might not know about these dangerous storms.

1. Hurricanes are only "hurricanes" around North America.

A tropical cyclone is a compact, low-pressure system fueled by thunderstorms that draw energy from the heat generated by warm ocean waters. These tropical cyclones acquire different names depending on how strong they are and where in the world they form. A mature tropical cyclone is called a hurricane in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans. What’s known as a hurricane in the Atlantic is called a typhoon near Asia and simply a cyclone everywhere else in the world.

2. Hurricanes come in all shapes and sizes.

Not all hurricanes are picture-perfect. Some storms can look so disorganized that it takes an expert eye and advanced technology to spot them. A full-fledged hurricane can be as small as a few dozen miles across or as large as one-half of the United States, as was the case with Typhoon Tip in the western Pacific Ocean in 1979. The smallest tropical cyclone on record was 2008’s Tropical Storm Marco, a tiny storm in the Gulf of Mexico that almost made it to hurricane strength. Marco’s strong winds only extended 12 miles from the eye of the storm—a distance smaller than the length of Manhattan.

3. The greatest danger in a hurricane is in the eyewall.

The spiraling bands of wind and rain that radiate from the center of a hurricane are what give these storms their distinctive buzzsaw shape. These bands can cause damage, flooding, and even tornadoes, but the worst part of a hurricane is the eyewall, or the tight group of thunderstorms that rage around the center of the storm. The most severe winds in a hurricane usually occupy a small part of the eyewall just to the right of the storm’s forward motion, an area known as the right-front quadrant. The worst damage is usually found where this part of the storm comes ashore.

4. The eye of a hurricane is very warm.

The core of a hurricane is very warm—they are tropical, after all. The eye of a hurricane is formed by air rushing down from the upper levels of the atmosphere to fill the void left by the low air pressure at the surface. Air dries out and warms up as it rapidly descends through the eye toward the surface. This allows temperatures in the eye of a strong hurricane to exceed 80°F thousands of feet above the Earth's surface, where it’s typically much colder.

5. You can tell a lot about a hurricane by its eye.

Like humans, you can tell a lot about a hurricane by looking it in the eye. A ragged, asymmetrical eye means that the storm is struggling to strengthen. A smooth, round eye means that the storm is both stable and quite strong. A tiny eye—sometimes called a pinhole or pinpoint eye—is usually indicative of a very intense storm.

6. Some hurricanes have two eyes.

An eye doesn’t last forever. Storms frequently encounter a process known as an “eyewall replacement cycle,” which is where a storm develops a new eyewall to replace the old one. A storm weakens during one of these cycles, but it can quickly grow even more intense than it originally was once the replacement cycle is completed. When Hurricane Matthew scraped the Florida coast in October 2016, the storm’s impacts were slightly less severe because the storm underwent an eyewall replacement cycle just as it made its closest approach to land.

7. The strong winds that a hurricane creates are only part of the danger.

While strong winds get the most coverage on the news, wind isn’t always the most dangerous part of the storm. More than half of all deaths that result from a landfalling hurricane are due to the storm surge, or the sea water that gets pushed inland by a storm’s strong winds. Most storm surges are relatively small and only impact the immediate coast, but in a larger storm like Katrina or Sandy, the wind can push deep water so far inland that it completely submerges homes many miles from the coast.

8 California rarely sees tropical cyclones.

It can seem odd that California occupies hundreds of miles of coastline but always seems to evade the hurricane threat faced by the East Coast. California almost never sees tropical cyclones because the ocean is simply too cold to sustain a storm. Only a handful of tropical cyclones have ever reached California in recorded history—the worst hit San Diego in 1858. The San Diego Hurricane was an oddity that’s estimated to have reached category 1 intensity as it brushed the southern half of the Golden State.

9. Hurricane hunters fly planes into storms.

Aside from satellite and radar imagery, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what a hurricane is doing unless it passes directly over a buoy or a ship. This is where the Hurricane Hunters come in, a brave group of scientists with the United States Air Force and NOAA who fly specially outfitted airplanes directly into the worst of a storm to measure its winds and report back their findings. This practice began during World War II and has become a mainstay of hurricane forecasting in the decades since.

10. Hurricane hunters drop sensors to measure waves.

The Hurricane Hunters assess the storm with all sorts of tools that measure temperature, pressure, wind, and moisture, and have weather radar onboard to give them a detailed view of the entire storm. They regularly release dropsondes to "read" the inside of the storm. Dropsondes are like weather balloons in reverse: instead of launching weather sensors from the ground into the sky, they drop them down through the sky to the ground. The Hurricane Hunters also have innovative sensors that measure waves and sea foam and use the data to accurately estimate how strong the winds are at the surface.

11. We started naming storms to keep track of them.

Meteorologists in the United States officially started naming tropical storms and hurricanes in the 1950s to make it easier to keep track in forecasts and news reports. Since then, naming tropical cyclones has become a worldwide effort coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for maintaining meteorological standards. Today, the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Pacific Ocean each receive a list of alternating masculine and feminine names that are reused every six years.

12. Names are retired if the storm was especially destructive.

If a storm is particularly destructive or deadly, the WMO will “retire” the name from official lists so it’s never used again out of respect for the families of the storm’s victims and survivors. When a name is retired, another name starting with the same letter takes its place. More than 80 names have been retired from the Atlantic Ocean’s list of names since 1954. Earlier this year, it was announced that the names Florence and Michael were being retired as a result of the damage they caused during the 2018 hurricane season; they will be replaced with Francine and Milton when the list is reused in 2024.

This piece originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2019.

Denver is About to Experience Summer and Winter Temperatures Within 24 Hours

iStock.com/mphotoi
iStock.com/mphotoi

In a story tailor-made for exhaustive Weather Channel coverage, Denver, Colorado is about to experience one of the more bizarre weather shifts in recent memory. After an expected Tuesday high of 80°F, residents can anticipate a dramatic shift down to 32°F by midday Wednesday, with an initial half-inch of snow accumulation increasing to up to 7 inches by Wednesday night.

Put another way: Citizens who need to make sure they hydrate in the warm temperatures Tuesday will have to bring out the parkas the following day.

The Denver Post reports that the warm air coming ahead of the cold can result in a clash of air masses, prompting areas of low pressure that can create forceful and damaging weather conditions. The storm could bring winds of up to 60 miles per hour and possibly even cause power outages. Snow accumulation should dissipate by the weekend, when temperatures are expected to climb back into the 60s.

The high temperature record for April 9 in Denver is 81°F, set in 1977.

[h/t The Denver Post]

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