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Major severe thunderstorm outbreak expected; U.S. drought intensifies

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:16 PM GMT on July 26, 2012

A dangerous outbreak of organized severe thunderstorms with strong, damaging winds is expected this afternoon from Ohio eastwards through Pennsylvania and into New England, says NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC). They have put the region, which includes Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City, in their "Moderate Risk" area for severe weather, just one notch below the highest level of alert. Much of the region is also under advisories for extreme heat, with temperatures in the upper 90s expected. This extreme heat will help energize the thunderstorms by making the atmosphere very unstable. A cold front passing through the region will trigger the severe weather episode beginning around 2 pm EDT this afternoon, near the Indiana/Ohio border. This front already triggered a round of severe thunderstorms early this morning across Michigan, which knocked out power to 16,000 customers. This afternoon, severe thunderstorms may organize into a complex that features a bow-shaped echo. If such a complex brings violent straight-line winds in excess of 58 mph (93 km/hr) over a swath of at least 240 miles (about 400 km), it will be called a derecho (from the Spanish phrase for "straight ahead".) The atmosphere is not as unstable as was the case for the June 29 - 30 Mid-Atlantic and Midwest derecho, however. That storm was one of the most destructive and deadly fast-moving severe thunderstorm complexes in North American history. It killed 22 people, knocked out power to at least 3.7 million customers, and did hundreds of millions in damage.

Figure 1. Severe weather risk for Thursday, July 26, 2012, from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC).

U.S. drought intensifies
The great U.S. drought of 2012 held constant in size but grew more intense over the past week, said NOAA in their weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report issued Thursday, July 26. The area of the contiguous U.S. covered by drought stayed constant at 64% , but the area covered by severe or greater drought jumped from 42% to 46%. These are truly historic levels of drought, exceeded only during the great Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s and a severe drought in the mid-1950s. The July 2012 drought is second only to the great Dust Bowl drought of July 1934 in terms of the area of the contiguous U.S. covered by moderate or greater drought (if we assume the drought conditions measured in mid-July are representative of the entire month of July, which is a reasonable approximation given the lastest drought forecast.) The five months with the greatest percent area in moderate or greater drought, since 1895, now look like this:

1) Jul 1934, 80%
2) Jul 2012, 64%
3) Dec 1939, 60%
4) Jul 1954, 60%
5) Dec 1956, 58%

If we consider the area of the contiguous U.S. covered by severe or greater drought, drought conditions as of July 24, 2012 now rank in 3rd place:

1) Jul 1934, 63%
2) Sep 1954, 50%
3) Jul 2012, 46%
4) Dec 1956, 43%
5) Aug 1936, 43%

Figure 2. July 24, 2012 drought conditions showed historic levels of drought across the U.S., with 64% of the contiguous U.S. experiencing moderate or greater drought, and 46% of the county experiencing severe or greater drought. Image credit: U.S. Drought Monitor.

Extreme heat continues in the Heartland
St. Louis, Missouri's summer of extreme heat reached record levels on Wednesday, when the city hit 108°F. This marked the 11th day this summer in St. Louis with temperatures of at least 105°F, beating the old record of ten such days in 1934. The minimum temperature in the city fell to just 86°F, tying with July 24, 1901, as the warmest minimum temperature ever recorded in the city. St. Louis has seen just 0.53" inches of rain this month, far below the normal 3.35" it usually records by this point in July.

Jeff Masters

Severe Weather Drought

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