NewsOctober 19, 2012

Powerful Windstorm Winds Down in Plains, Midwest

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

A massive windstorm is finally winding down after it snarled traffic, helped burn down a tiny North Dakota town, and caused a dust storm that spawned a multi-vehicle accident in Oklahoma. The winds flipped tractor trailer trucks onto their sides in South Dakota, as drivers were unable to maintain control against hurricane-force crosswinds.

Tractor trailer trucks that were blown off of Interstate 90 in South Dakota.
Credit: National Weather Service (via Facebook).

The storm, which was centered across the Upper Midwest but has since drifted eastward and weakened, was a powerful area of low pressure fueled by the strong temperature contrast between cooler and drier Canadian air masses and warmer and more humid air well to the south. These types of storms are actually rather common in the fall, when such large temperature contrasts tend to occur. An even more powerful October storm occurred in about the same area in 2011, for example.

The storm produced wind damage across a large area, from North Dakota and Montana all the way to Colorado, Kansas, and Illinois. It also helped spark an outbreak of severe thunderstorms that spawned several tornadoes in some Southern states, including two twisters that were ranked as EF-3 twisters on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

The dust storm in Oklahoma was visible from space, as this satellite image shows (arrows added to point out the dust plume.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: CIMSS Satellite Blog.

While the severe thunderstorms were noteworthy, it was the massive area of strong winds that proved to be the top story. The National Weather Service had warned of the high wind threat several days in advance, and it lived up to its billing, possibly even exceeding expectations.

According to The Weather Channel, there were 132 reports of sustained winds or wind gusts of at least 58 mph for the period ending at 6 a.m. Eastern time on Friday. Five of those reports were for hurricane-force gusts of at least 75 mph. For the last three days, the tally is even more noteworthy, with nearly 400 reports of strong wind gusts, including 25 reports of hurricane-force wind gusts.

The strong winds helped spread a wildfire that destroyed the tiny town of Bucyrus, N.D. The town only had a population of about two dozen prior to the fire, but now all of those people have been displaced.

Map showing the area of strongest winds in orange and red colors, indicating winds of at least tropical storm force.
Credit: National Weather Service.

Since the region that was hit hard by the wind storm is the same area that has been going through a withering drought, it’s no surprise that the storm caused problems with airborne dust. A dust storm swept across Oklahoma, closing off Interstate 35 for a time, and the dust was blown southeastward into neighboring states.

According to a report on, one eyewitness, Jodi Palmer, a dispatcher with the Kay County Sheriff's Office, placed the blame for the dust event squarely on the drought: “In this area alone, the dirt is blowing because we've been in a drought. I think from the drought everything's so dry and the wind is high.”

Oklahoma has been one of the hardest hit drought states, although in recent weeks there has been some slight improvement there.

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