Powerful Winds Are Battering US Midwest at Increasing Rates

By Brian K. Sullivan | November 3, 2023

Damaging winds blasting out of thunderstorms are occurring five times more frequently across the central US than they were 40 years ago because of the warming climate, threatening local economies.

That’s according to new findings from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR. A recent study using computer modeling showed non-tornadic gusts such as straight-line winds and derechos — rapidly moving lines of thunderstorms that can travel long distances — have become more common.

The powerful winds can have devastating effects on power grids, crops, people, livestock and buildings, Andreas Prein, the study’s author and a scientist at the atmospheric research center, said in a telephone interview.

Strong winds have taken a toll on the region in recent years. In 2020, a powerful derecho sweeping across the Midwest caused about $11 billion in damages. Tree-toppling gusts also damaged buildings and power lines in 2022, and earlier this year, hurricane-strength winds knocked out power in Oklahoma.

“As these findings show, it is crucial to incorporate the increasing risk of straight-line winds when planning for the impacts of climate change so we can ensure the future resiliency of infrastructure to the frequently neglected peril,” said Prein, whose work was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study uses data from 1980 to 2022.

Research Team

In order to capture the increase in winds, Prein’s team, which included research from the US Geological Survey, shrank the grid-spacing in the model down to 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), which is the range used in operational weather models. It then used one-third of output from USGS’s Super Computer for a year.

“It is a big investment and a big labor effort,” Prein said. By shrinking the grid down, the team was able to capture the winds coming out of the thunderstorms that would have been missed with the 60-mile spacing traditionally used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In a warming world the atmosphere can hold more moisture, and the study shows this also leads to more wind as well gusts from down drafts, he said. The next step is to extend the model into the mid-2060s to see what the future may hold for these destructive storms.

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