The powerful windstorms that swept across the US last week was captured by several different satellites. This type of storm, called a derecho, moved from Illinois to the Mid-Atlantic states on June 29, and the movie from NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite shows the storms’ sudden expansion and speed. The storms left a more than 1,000-km (700-mile) trail of destruction across the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, cutting power to millions and killing thirteen people.
A derecho (pronounced “deh-REY-cho”) is not your average, ordinary local summer thunderstorm. These are widespread, long-lived but rare wind storms that are usually associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. Damage from a derecho is usually in one direction along a relatively straight track. By definition an event is classified a derecho if the wind damage swath extends more than 400 km (240 miles) and includes wind gusts of at least 93 km/h (58 mph) or greater along most of its length.
These storms occur in the United States during the late spring and summer, with more than three quarters occurring between April and August.
The movie begins on June 28 at 15:15 UTC (11:15 a.m. EDT) and ends on June 30, 2012 at 16:01 UTC (12:01 p.m. EDT). In the animation, the derecho’s clouds appear as a line in the upper Midwest on June 29 at 14:32. By 16:02 UTC, they appear as a rounded area south of Lake Michigan. By 21:32, the area of the derecho’s clouds were near Lake Erie and over Ohio expanding as the system track southeast. By 06:30 UTC, the size appears to have almost doubled as the derecho moves over West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. At 02:32 UTC on June 30 (10:32 p.m. EDT), the Derecho was over the mid-Atlantic bringing a 160 km (100 mile) line of severe storms and wind gusts as high as 144 km/h (90 mph) to the region.
“It is interesting how the process is a self-sustaining process that is fed by a combination of atmospheric factors that all have to be in place at the same time,” said Joe Witte, a meteorologist in Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, Va. and a consultant to NASA. “That is why they are relatively rare: not all the elements line up that often.”
NASA’s Aqua satellite flew over the derecho on June 29 and June 30, using the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder instrument (AIRS) onboard to capture infrared imagery of the event, as seen above.
“The AIRS infrared image shows the high near-surface atmospheric temperatures blanketing the South and Midwestern U.S., approaching 98 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Ed Olsen of the AIRS Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The AIRS images for June 30 show areas of intense convection centered off the New Jersey coast and another, less intense, system over Iowa-Indiana-Ohio. The area off the New Jersey coast is no longer a rapidly moving linear front. The near-surface atmospheric temperatures over the South and Midwest had decreased by 10 to 15 Fahrenheit in most areas,” Olsen said.
NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite (NPP) captured night-time images on June 28 and June 30, that reflected the massive blackouts that occurred after the derecho swept through the mid-Atlantic states. You can see the comparison images here at NASA’s Earth Observatory website.
The mechanics of a derecho go like this: The downburst mentioned by Witte, above, occurs when cold air in the upper atmosphere is cooled more by the evaporation of some of the rain and melting of the frozen precipitation pushed up into the high levels of the towering cumulonimbus (thunderclouds). That cold air becomes much denser than the surrounding air and literally falls to the ground, accelerating like any other falling body.
“The huge blob of very cold air from the upper atmosphere has a higher forward wind speed since it is high in the atmosphere,” Witte said. “This gives the ‘blob’ great forward momentum. Add that speed to the falling speed and the result is a very powerful forward moving surface wind.”
The process of a derecho can become self-sustaining as hot and humid air is forced upward by the gust front and develops more (reinforcing) towering clouds. If there is a rear low level jet stream, there is nothing to stop the repeating process.
You can find out more information about derechos at this NOAA page.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.