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Thunderstorms are becoming more intense due to climate change

Recent research has brought to light a pressing environmental issue: the significant increase in the prevalence of damaging thunderstorms and straight line winds in the central United States brought on by climate change.

These findings, spearheaded by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), not only deepen our understanding of the current climatic shifts but also foreshadow a growing challenge in weather-related disaster management and mitigation.

Force of thunderstorm winds

Straight line winds, the non-tornadic winds that emanate from thunderstorm downdrafts, are known for their potential to inflict widespread damage. They are classified as damaging when exceeding 50 knots, and they are notorious for causing extensive harm to buildings, power grids, and posing serious risks to human safety.

A concerning aspect of these winds is their rapid onset, capable of escalating from calm to gusts of 60 to 80 miles per hour within moments. These winds, along with thunderstorms, have steadily increased along with the changing climate.

Climate change intensifies thunderstorms

In step with climate change, the central U.S. has seen a dramatic fivefold increase in the area affected by thunderstorms and high winds over the past four decades.

This alarming trend suggests a notable shift in atmospheric behaviors, with significant implications for the safety, economy, and infrastructure of the region.

The study by NCAR scientist Andreas Prein indicates that the risk posed by these winds is not merely speculative but is demonstrably intensifying.

Innovations in meteorological research

Traditional weather station observations are often inadequate in capturing the fleeting and localized nature of straight line winds. To bridge this gap, the research combined meticulous meteorological observations with very high-resolution computer modeling.

By factoring in climate change conditions, the integration of these two methodologies, alongside the analysis of fundamental physical laws, allowed for a nuanced estimation of the changes in these thunderstorms and straight-line winds.

Thunderstorm simulation from changing climate

A high-resolution computer model simulation named CONUS404 has played a pivotal role in this research.

Developed through a collaboration between NCAR scientists and the U.S. Geological Survey, the model offers a detailed climate and hydrological conditions simulation across the continental United States.

With its fine-grained resolution of 4 kilometers, CONUS404 has revolutionized the ability to analyze and understand the behavior of straight line winds.

Weather stations to simulation points

Shifting from relying on the limited scope of 95 weather stations, Prein expanded the analysis to a staggering 109,387 points within the simulation. This expansion provided an unprecedentedly detailed view of the wind patterns, revealing the considerable increase in affected areas over time.

Thunderstorms and climate change

One of the core objectives of the study was to discern whether the increased frequency and intensity of straight line winds and thunderstorms could be attributed to climate change.

Prein delved into the thermodynamics of these winds, scrutinizing how climate change could be modifying the temperature differentials that drive these events.

Thermodynamics at play

Straight line winds originate from the high-altitude rain and hail that cool the air. This series of events leads to its rapid descent and the subsequent rush of intense winds at the surface. Prein’s calculations have indicated that climate change is likely intensifying this process.

By increasing the temperature differential between the descending cool air and the warmer surrounding atmosphere, climate change is potentially enabling these downdrafts to plummet even faster, escalating the likelihood of thunderstorms birthing damaging winds.

Infrastructure and safety

The insights from this research are not only academically significant but also carry practical implications. As Prein emphasizes, there is an urgent need to factor in the increased risk of straight line winds when planning for the impacts of climate change. This foresight is essential to bolster the future resilience of infrastructures and communities against what is often an overlooked yet formidable climatic hazard.

The NSF and the MIT Climate Grand Challenge on Weather and Climate Extremes have highlighted a crucial and emerging aspect of climate change: the increased incidence of straight line winds in the central United States.

This research underlines the imperative for adaptive strategies in weather forecasting as these severe weather events will continue to escalate. The findings of Prein and his team serve as a clarion call to action. Their study urges a reassessment of how climate change is incorporated into the planning and development of resilient systems to confront the burgeoning threat of weather extremes.

More about thunderstorms and climate change

Thunderstorms stand as one of nature’s most impressive and formidable phenomena. They fill the sky with a dramatic display of power, characterized by booming thunder, flashing lightning, heavy rain, and sometimes hail and gusty winds.

The birth of a thunderstorm

Thunderstorms form when warm, moist air rises in the atmosphere and collides with cooler air. This process, known as convection, initiates the formation of cumulonimbus clouds. These beautiful clouds can tower up to 75,000 feet or more into the sky.

As the warm air continues to ascend, it cools and condenses into water droplets or ice crystals. This water forms the dense, dark clouds that are the hallmark of an impending storm.

Thunderstorm instability from climate change

For a thunderstorm to thrive, the atmosphere must have a combination of moisture, unstable air, and lift. The moisture feeds the clouds. Next, the instability — a temperature gradient with warmer air below cooler air — provides the buoyancy for air to rise. Finally, lifting mechanisms, such as fronts or mountains, serve to trigger the upward motion of air.

Electrifying heart of the storm

As a thunderstorm develops, the interactions between particles within the cloud generate electrical charges. Ice crystals near the top of the cloud carry a positive charge, while heavier hailstones toward the bottom carry a negative charge.

The separation of charges results in a lightning bolt as the built-up energy seeks a path to discharge. This happens either within the cloud, between clouds, or between the cloud and the ground.

The roar of thunder

Following the flash of lightning, thunder rumbles across the sky. The intense heat from lightning causes a rapid expansion of air, creating a sonic shock wave that we hear as thunder. Because light travels faster than sound, we see the lightning before we hear the thunder.

Lifecycle of a thunderstorm

A thunderstorm typically has three stages: the developing stage, the mature stage, and the dissipating stage. In the developing stage, updrafts of warm air form the cloud structure. The mature stage is marked by rain, hail, and the most intense lightning and thunder as it peaks. Finally, in the dissipating stage, the storm loses its energy source. During this stage, updrafts weaken, leading to the end of the storm.

The dangers of severe thunderstorms

While thunderstorms are a natural occurrence, they can become severe and pose significant hazards. This is true now, more than ever, as the climate continues to change.

Severe thunderstorms can spawn damaging winds in excess of 58 miles per hour. They produce hail one inch in diameter or larger, and in the most extreme cases, give birth to tornadoes.

Flash flooding can also occur during heavy rainfalls. This causes rapid rises in water levels and posing threats to life and property.

Preparing for thunderstorms

Staying safe during thunderstorms involves awareness and preparation. Monitoring weather forecasts, having a plan in case of severe weather, and seeking shelter when a storm approaches are critical steps. Remember the adage, “When thunder roars, go indoors,” to avoid the danger of lightning strikes.

In summary, thunderstorms command our respect due to their power and potential for destruction. Understanding how they form, their lifecycle, and the risks they pose emphasizes the importance of being prepared. By respecting their might and being ready for their occurrence, we can safely appreciate the awe-inspiring spectacle of thunderstorms.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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