Updated May 7, 2024 - Energy & Environment

"Dangerous" storms with potentially "intense" tornadoes threaten Central U.S.

Satellite image showing severe thunderstorms underway across the Plains on Monday night, with flashes of lightning within each storm.

Satellite image showing severe thunderstorms underway across the Plains on Monday night, with flashes of lightning within each storm. Photo: CIRA/RAMMB

A significant severe storm outbreak threatening much of the Plains and Central U.S. unleashed tornadoes across several states — including a destructive one that ripped through two northeastern Oklahoma towns late Monday.

Threat level: The Storm Prediction Center raised the risk level to "High," the most significant level on its risk scale that is rarely used, due to the tornado threat in central Oklahoma and southern Kansas into Monday night.

  • "A regional outbreak of severe weather with multiple intense (EF3+), long-tracked tornadoes, as well as very large hail and severe thunderstorm gusts, is expected over parts of the south-central Plains this evening into the overnight hours," per the SPC.
  • While the most intense storms were likely to hit Oklahoma and Kansas, severe weather was possible from Texas to Missouri northwestward into South Dakota over Monday night.
  • Heavy rains and flooding were possible across portions of the Northern High Plains and eastern portions of the Central to Southern Plains, along with the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes into Tuesday.

The big picture: There were 15 reports of tornadoes in Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kansas and South Dakota by late Monday, per the SPC.

  • There were reports of damaged structures from a confirmed tornado in Barnsdall and Bartlesville, Okla., which were both affected by a tornado emergency issued by the National Weather Service.
  • The City of Bartlesville said in a Facebook post early Tuesday that only minor injuries had been reported so far, but emergency services rescued several people who became trapped in a hotel after the tornado struck, causing major damage to residential areas and medical facilities in the city.
  • The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for a region that included southern Oklahoma City with the threat of 80 mph wind gusts and quarter-size hail.

State of play: A "Particularly Dangerous Situation" tornado watch was in effect for central Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City, through 11pm Central time, where "explosive development" of severe thunderstorms is forecast, SPC stated.

  • Tornado warnings were in effect for parts of Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City, through 12:15am Central time and watches for Arkansas and other portions of Oklahoma through 5am CT, and Illinois and Missouri until 8am CT.
  • Computer models earlier Monday pointed to a rare high-end threat of tornadoes, on par with some notorious past events in this region.

By the numbers: Nearly 36,900 people were without power in Oklahoma and another 12,700-plus had no electricity in Missouri early Tuesday, per poweroutage.us.

  • At least 70 million people are in a "slight risk" or greater threat level for severe weather during the Monday to Wednesday period, according to the SPC.

Zoom in: The storms are the result of a clash between cooler, much drier air from the west with fast-moving warm, moist air flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico and spreading across much of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.

  • The presence of strong winds well above the surface, associated with a dip in the jet stream, will help trigger severe thunderstorms and give them the energy needed to become supercells, which are thunderstorms that contain persistent, rotating updrafts.

Context: The outbreak follows a busy April, during which more than 300 tornadoes were reported across the country.

  • This may be the first "high risk" outlook for Oklahoma in five years, illustrating the seriousness of this situation.

Zoom out: The outbreak is tied to a deep dip in the jet stream and a cold pool of air aloft dipping down across the Southwest, and swinging east-northeast across the Plains.

What's next: The severe weather threat was expected to move east into the Ohio Valley and mid-South Tuesday, with cities including Indianapolis, Columbus, Memphis, Nashville and Cincinnati all at risk for storms.

  • Wednesday could bring a more significant storm risk.

The intrigue: The topic of how climate change is affecting tornadoes is one of active research in the scientific community, though there is emerging agreement around several points.

  • Climate change is affecting the atmospheric conditions that give rise to severe thunderstorms, in particular by increasing atmospheric instability.
  • As global air and ocean temperatures increase, the atmosphere can carry more water vapor, which is a key ingredient for giving rise to severe storms.
  • At the same time, though, wind shear, which is also important for tornado formation, may be decreasing over time.

Between the lines: Some studies show that a warming climate can therefore make tornado outbreaks more prolific when instability and shear overlap, but potentially less frequent due to the increasingly rare combo.

  • However, this is not yet agreed on by most of the tornado research community, especially since twisters are small-scale events, making them hard to simulate in computer models.

Go deeper: The difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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