The storm sweeping the US looks terrifying

High winds dust obscures the sun in Hodgeman County in Jetmore, Kansas. Photo: Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle (AP)

Less than a week after a freak tornado outbreak, meteorologists are once again watching in awe and horror as the scenes unfold on their radar screens and across the Midwest and the Plains.

A powerful storm unleashed by the clash of record heat and a powerful storm system falling from the Mountain West has unleashed chaos across a vast swath of the United States. Blazing winds have whipped up to 107 mph (172 kph) in Colorado, fires have lit the Texas Panhandle, and monster plumes of dust have turned night into day from Nebraska to Kansas.

As if that weren’t enough, a series of thunderstorms are now screaming into the area with shocking speed and ferocity — and could be capable of unleashing a handful of tornadoes in locations usually covered in snow at this time of year. Dealing with one of these hazards alone would be shocking for this time of year, but seeing the weather map in broad brushstrokes with some of the most extreme warnings issued by the National Weather Service is a nightmare.

The dust bowl has returned to the plains

The plains have experienced snow drought so far this year, and the recent spell of extreme heat has nearly wiped out any small snow showers left. Prolonged drought in parts of the states where winds are currently blowing means there simply isn’t much moisture to hold the soil in place. Dust plumes are clearly visible to satellites more than 22,000 miles (35,405 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.

But the fuel for the real nightmare is what happens on the ground. Countless Twitter users have documented skies saturated with dust. The scenes may look like Hollywood special effects, but this is real life.

The circumstances that gave rise to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s have become twice as likely due to carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels. Just something to think about…

Wildfires in December for Texas and Oklahoma

In addition to satellites showing dust, smoke is also visible in the panhandles in Texas and Oklahoma. Forest fires have spread rapidly in the region, covering thousands of hectares and force evacuations.

A satellite image of wildfires igniting in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. The red ones are hot spots and the smoke moving east is clearly visible. Photo: NOAA/CIRA

The largest fire is the Parker Creek Fire, located west of Amarillo. The fire increased to 3,500 hectares and was only 10% under control by Wednesday afternoon local time.

Monster fires are also spreading in Kansas. Again, this is December.

The Dangerous Line of Storms Blowing East

“I am a professional Met for parts of 6 decades, 47 years. I can say unequivocally that I have never seen what is happening now, and will continue to do so until Wednesday night, this time of year and perhaps even the peak of the SVR season over this large area,” former Accuweather meteorologist Ken Clark tweeted.

“Svr” is weather geek short for “severe”, and the season for weather like what we see is definitely not December. (It is usually late in the spring.) A line of storms has formed and it seems that… probably a derecho. It pushes across the plains with straight winds up to 90 mph (145 kmh). Those differ from tornadoes in that they don’t spin, but instead blow, well, straight. But that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

The storm system also moves exceptionally fast at 90 mph, prompting disaster managers to… activate warning sirens even with storms tens of miles away. (Usually those alerts only come when a storm system is nearly on top of a location.) The storms are also potential triggering tornadoes, adding another danger to humans in their path.

You don’t have to be a radar or satellite imaging expert to see how intense this storm system is. After raking Nebraska, it will move through Iowa and Missouri, where the NWS is warning of “heavy/damaging winds” and the possibility of tornadoes.

The shape and energy of a system like this over this part of the US at this time of year is exceptionally rare. If you live anywhere in its path, be sure to follow the warnings of the NWS, disaster managers, and trusted meteorologists. We’ve seen enough weather-related tragedies this week to last a lifetime.

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