Prepare 2023: Severe Thunderstorms

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By Scott Roberts

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Dark clouds roll in and the wind picks up…the sound of thunder can be heard from the distance. Severe storms are a common occurrence in Kansas.It’s important to know how to identify severe storms and take measures to stay safe when they occur.

Watch vs. Warning

Big thanks to KAKE-TV for this humorous look at a serious topic:

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That’s the basics…a watch means the ingredients are right: sufficient moisture, heat, and a mechanism to lift that moist air from near the ground to higher in the sky.

spc risk categories
Courtesy: Storm Prediction Center

Types of Severe Storms

Convective Modes (images licensed from MetGraphics)

The storm modes are listed generally in the order of increasing risk of damage.

Pulse Storms

Also called pop-up or popcorn storms. These typically last 10-45 minutes, and can cause brief heavy rain and small hail. Their main damage-causing risk is straight-line wind, most frequently generated as they fall apart when the atmosphere can no longer sustain the storm.

Multi-cell storms

These tend to be stronger, because the environment among the clusters tend to keep things going longer. This allows hail to make multiple up and down trips in the storm updraft, which leads to larger, potentially damaging hail stones. These tend to be more frequent in the eastern half of Kansas due to better moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, but can be seen anywhere. Again they present a wind damage risk as they die out (and are potentially replaced by another storm). Very heavy, flooding rain is possible if storms fire repeatedly in the same area, a situation known as “training.”

Linear Storms

In these systems, the storms form a line, a bow, or similar structure. From the ground you see a shelf cloud — often going horizon to horizon

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“White shelf cloud,” courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

The they are formed when an advancing cold front forms a wedge and pushes warm. moist air into the middle levels of the atmosphere where it condenses and causes heavy rain. The wind form the descending rain-cooled air pushes the front forward and the cycle continues. The event that impacted most of Kansas on February 26, 2023 was an example of a linear system.

  • While tornadoes can occur on a linear system, they are most commonly very short-lived (often dissipating before a warning can be issued) and weak. Occasionally EF-2 damage can be seen from these. We used to call them gustnadoes.
  • The risk on a linear system is two-fold: strong to extreme wind as the line passes, followed by torrential rain and sometimes hail.
  • A line of storms that sustains for hours and impacts multiple states may be termed a “derecho” (dur-AY-cho) — there is a technical definition, but you just need to know if you hear that term it is causing substantial impact for a lot of people.

“The worst is first, then comes the rain”

Discrete Supercells

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“Supercell” Courtesy of Wallpaper Cave

These are the Daddy of all storms. The stronger storms can actually create their own mini-environment. These are the storms where you can see a tower of bubbling cloud miles in the distance, extending from near the ground to an anvil top high in the sky. Warm moist air flows in at ground level, usually from the southeast or south, and rises until it can rise no more. The air condenses as it rises, and the falling air, which is cooler than the nearby rising air, begins a process of “rolling” in the atmosphere. The roll takes on a tilt, partly due to the motion of the storm and partly because it is getting spin imparted from winds that get faster and turn around the clock from southeast at the low level to westerly at the top.

supercell wallpaper national geographic
Supercell (c) National Geographic. Downloaded at Wallpaper Cave, used under Fair Use principles.

When a severe storm is on the horizon, it’s important to take steps to stay safe. The first is to stay indoors and away from windows. Close all windows and curtains, and unplug any electronic devices in order to protect them from a power surge. If possible, move to an interior room on the lowest level of the home. Additionally, avoid contact with any metal objects as they can conduct electricity.

Safety messages from National Weather Service:

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Have multiple ways to receive the warning

We recommend the following:

  • Weather app on your mobile device we have covered some previously. Any of the apps offered by the local TV stations are also good. Be sure to set the apps to track your location, so you will be notified only when warnings apply to you
  • NOAA All-Hazards alert radio: We used to call these “weather alert radios.” They can be programmed so you are only alerted when a warning is issued for your county.
  • Broadcast TV/Radio (although unfortunately in Wichita and some other areas, the live coverage of storms on radio is less than it once was.) All three Wichita stations do a good job. I’m partial to Storm Team 12, of course, due to my relationship with them. And we’re proud to partner with Eagle Media in Hutchinson, where they do severe weather coverage on all three stations…KHUT, KHMY and KWBW.
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