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Hellacious Great Lakes Windstorm Fells Trees, Knocks Out Power to More than 1 Million

By: Bob Henson 3:57 PM GMT on March 09, 2017

Under brilliant blue skies, an onslaught of high wind swept across the Great Lakes region on Wednesday, causing damage and disruption on par with a major winter storm or a severe thunderstorm complex. About 1 million customers lost power in Michigan alone, and more than 800,000 of those remained without electricity on Thursday morning. More than 100,000 others were affected in parts of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. It’s been the largest weather-related outage in the history of DTE Energy, which serves southeast Michigan. Countless huge trees were topped across the region.

Widespread high winds are not uncommon across the Great Lakes in late winter and early spring, as the typical midlatitude storm track edges north toward the region. In this case, the unusually mild winter appears to have stoked the destruction. Most of the affected areas just had their warmest or second-warmest February on record. DTE Energy noted that the ground was softer than usual for this time of year. In addition, the soil was saturated after recent rains in southeast Michigan, said DTE. Trees were thus easier to topple than they otherwise would have been, and these falling trees played a big role in bringing down power lines.

Figure 1. Jackson Fire Department personnel respond to a gas leak after a tree fell on a house in Jackson, Mich., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Image credit: J. Scott Park/Jackson Citizen Patriot via AP.

Figure 2. A Volkswagon owned by Lincoln Russell sits crushed under a tree in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, as strong winds moved through. Image credit: David Guralnick/Detroit News via AP.

Peak wind gusts across the Great Lakes region on Wednesday included:

Chicago, IL (O’Hare): 58 mph
Gary, IN: 63 mph
Saginaw, MI: 68 mph
Detroit Metro Airport: 68 mph
Grand Rapids, MI: 64 mph
Toledo, OH: 62 mph
Cleveland, OH: 61 mph
Youngstown, OH: 70 mph
Batavia, NY (5 miles east): 76 mph
Rochester, NY: 81 mph

The 81-mph gust in Rochester was the city’s second strongest on record, beaten only by the 89-mph gust recorded during a major thunderstorm/derecho event on Labor Day (Sept. 6), 1998.

Jeff Masters, who lives just northwest of Detroit, relayed this first-hand report through a marginal cell-phone connection: “Wednesday's wind storm was the most extreme I've ever observed in my 50 years living in Michigan, with multiple hours of tropical storm-force sustained winds, and gusts approaching hurricane force. Most extraordinary were the sustained winds of 51 mph recorded in Grand Rapids, which brought down power lines that completely blocked I-96. I had to clear away multiple downed trees on my street to get out of my neighborhood, and it was an unnerving experience to saw at the downed trees while looking up at the swaying trees above, wondering which ones were ready to come down as violent 60+ mph gusts tore through.”

Weather-related power outages are becoming more frequent
A 2014 study by Climate Central found that major U.S. power outages (those affecting more than 50,000 customers) increased tenfold between 1984 and 2012. Even after adjusting for improvements in outage reporting, weather-related outages increased dramatically across the period. At the same time, there was no trend in the number of outages unrelated to weather (see Figure 3 below). The study found that Michigan experienced 71 major weather-related outages from 2003 to 2012—the most recorded in any state—with Ohio placing third and Pennsylvania fourth.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” the report noted. Even if there is no direct link between climate change and the type of midlatitude storm that drove Wednesday’s high winds, the warm soils noted above appear to have facilitated the damage to trees and power lines. And as we discussed in our post on Wednesday, there is strong evidence that late-winter U.S. warmth over recent decades is an outgrowth of human-induced climate change.

Figure 3. Annual number of reported weather-related and non-weather related power outages in the U.S., 1984-2012. Image credit: Fig. 2, “Blackout: Extreme Weather, Climate Change and Power Outages,” Alyson Kenward, PhD, and Urooj Raja, Climate Central, 2014.

Fires, tornadoes, and blowdowns: A multi-day siege of wind-driven mayhem
The massive Great Lakes windstorm of Wednesday capped off several days of wind-related threats that took on a variety of forms. The culprit behind the whole event was a massive upper-level trough and associated surface low that barreled northeast from the northern Great Plains into central Canada, with multiple fronts pinwheeling around its south side. The surface pressure fell to 980.4 millibars in Fargo, North Dakota, on Monday, just a whisker above Fargo’s all-time March record low of 979.3 mb.

Along the south side of this system, a ribbon of very strong west to southwest winds extended through the lowest several miles of the atmosphere. These winds were able to reach the surface easily because of strong downward forcing and warm low-level temperatures that facilitated mixing through the depth of the atmosphere.

Figure 4. Winds at 850 mb, about a mile above the surface, were howling at more than 64 knots (74 mph) on Wednesday morning, March 8, 2017, along a ribbon from eastern Iowa to southwest Michigan. These winds mixed down to the surface in frequent strong gusts as a midlatitude storm centered in Canada moved eastward. Image credit: www.tropicaltidbits.com.

Figure 5. Firefighters from across Kansas and Oklahoma battle a wildfire near Protection, Kan., Monday, March 6, 2017. Image credit: Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP.

At least six people were killed on Monday as wind-driven wildfires raged across the plains of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, northwest Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. In just a few hours, an estimated 1.5 million acres of prairie—almost twice the area of Rhode Island—were scorched. Four deaths were reported in Texas, including three young ranchers who perished trying to save cattle. Another rancher in Colorado lost nearly 200 cattle to a blaze near Haxtun. In Kansas, a motorist died from smoke inhalation, and an Oklahoma woman fighting a blaze with her husband died of a heart attack.

Fires across the Great Plains can represent a notably high fraction of all U.S. land affected by fire in a given year. In 2006, the East Amarillo Complex fire in the Texas Panhandle killed 12 people and burned more than 900,000 acres, more than 40% of that entire year’s U.S. wildland fire acreage.

Figure 6. Ashley Strother, left, hugs her aunt Brenda Johnson among the wreckage of Johnson's house in Oak Grove, Missouri, on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, after an EF3 tornado moved through the area. Image credit; Allison Long /The Kansas City Star via AP.

Just northeast of the fire-stricken zone, a significant outbreak of severe weather unfolded late Monday. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center received 47 preliminary tornado reports extending from Oklahoma to Minnesota. Fortunately, most of these tornadoes were weak and short-lived. No deaths were reported, but significant damage and 12 injuries occurred in an EF3 tornado that struck Oak Grove, Missouri, just east of Kansas City. 

Further north, two EF1 tornadoes were confirmed in Minnesota, one near Clarks Grove and the other near Zimmerman. These are the earliest tornadoes ever confirmed in Minnesota for any year, beating the previous record of March 18, 1968, by nearly two weeks. Few if any tornadoes have been recorded this early in the year as far north in the U.S. as the Zimmerman tornado, which struck just north of Minneapolis.

We’ll be back with a new post by Friday.

Bob Henson

High Wind Tornado Fire

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.