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Rare January tornadoes rip the Midwest

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 4:39 PM GMT on January 08, 2008

Wild spring-like severe weather swept through the Midwestern U.S. last night, unleashing tornadoes, baseball-sized hail, flooding, and extreme wind gusts. Up to 37 tornadoes ripped through Missouri, Oklahoma, Illinois, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. Two people were killed and three critically injured in southern Missouri near the town of Marshfield, northeast of Springfield, when a tornado smashed through a mobile home park. In Wheatland, Wisconsin, in Kenosha County, just north of the Illinois border, a strong or possibly violent tornado damaged or destroyed 55 buildings and injured 13 people. Twelve homes were demolished down to their foundations. The Wheatland tornado was only the second January tornado on record in Wisconsin. The only other one was a long-track F3 in Green and Rock counties on 24 January 1967. A radar animation of the Wheatland tornado is at right, and more detailed imagery and analysis of this tornado are available from the CIMSS Satellite Blog.

Record warm temperatures helped fuel yesterday's severe weather outbreak. The 63° F reading in Milwaukee was the warmest temperature ever recorded there in the month of January. Many locations in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois posted record highs within three degrees of their warmest-ever January readings. The record warmth will continue to fuel more severe thunderstorms today from northern Louisiana to Ohio, and the Storm Prediction Center has already issued a Tornado Watch for portions of Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Severe thunderstorms have already been reported in Arkansas this morning.

Last night's severe thunderstorm I observed from my house was the first I've ever experienced in my 40 years living in Michigan. One thunderstorm, 100 miles north of where I live, covered the ground up to two inches deep with hail (Midland, Michigan). Michigan has had three consecutive Januarys with record warmth and spring-like thunderstorms. Northern Illinois recorded its first January tornado since 1950 last night, and Wisconsin its second January tornado on record. Is it global warming? Well, one can't blame a single weather event on climate change. Also, it was eight below zero here just five days ago, so there has been some very normal winter weather this year. Furthermore, the 37 tornadoes reported yesterday don't come close to the 102 twisters recorded during the huge January 17-22, 1999 tornado outbreak across Arkansas and Tennessee. But the string of unusual January warmth in three straight years, accompanied by severe thunderstorms far to the north, is broadly consistent with what one would expect to see in a warming climate. Expect to see a lot more spring-like weather in January in coming years.

Jeff Masters
Kenosha, WI Tornado
Kenosha, WI Tornado
This tornado was caught at approx. 4:30 pm 1/7/08. North-east side of Kenosha County, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.


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