The U.S. can add high winds to the list of weather calamities this year. Just days removed from a deadly tornado outbreak, a huge swath of the country will face dangerous winds that could lead to prairie fires and blowing dust and snow.
Wind may seem more benign than the twisters, wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves that have hit the country this year. But the situation is no joke, with hurricane-force winds possible on Wednesday from Southern California to Michigan. All told, high-wind watches or warnings blanket an astounding 21% of the Lower 48 and cover 36 million people.
The conditions that will drive the winds are similar to the ones that caused Friday’s tornado outbreak: Freak heat over the Midwest and South and a storm screaming out of the West. Thankfully, though, severe weather that could spawn more twisters isn’t likely to come into play in areas hit by the outbreak on Friday. But the National Weather Service is still warning of an “unprecedented outbreak of severe thunderstorms for this time of year” across parts of the upper Midwest and rare December tornado watches are possible in places more accustomed to snow at this time of year.
Temperatures could be as much as 38 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) hotter than normal, and dozens of records could fall from Texas to Wisconsin. Dallas could crack 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius), while the frozen tundra of Green Bay could get to 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius), both of which would be record-setting heat. All told, 51 weather stations are forecast to tie or beat daily records, according to NWS data. (Hello, climate change.)
That wintertime sizzle will be met by a storm system dropping out of the West that’s delivering snow in the mountains measured in feet. The warm air out in front of the storm will essentially act as a magnet, pulling the cold front toward it and unleashing a wild wind storm. Winds will roar 50 to 60 mph (80 to 97 kmh) across a vast area, with the possibility for gusts as high as 100 mph (161 kmh), a speed that’s equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane. Lamar, Colorado, already clocked a gust at 107 mph (172 kmh) and other areas of the state aren’t far behind.
In areas that have seen paltry snowpack and precipitation such as the Southwest, blowing dust will be a huge problem. Where snow is on the ground, it could kick up to cause white-out conditions. The NWS Storm Prediction Center is warning of “extremely critical” fire conditions across eastern New Mexico and Colorado as well as parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, an area covering more than 121,000 square miles (313,000 square kilometers). The agency is calling from a “volatile fire weather day” due to the high winds, heat, and low humidity, all conditions that could turn an errant spark into a firestorm in a region pockmarked with drought and low snow cover.
“Such a high-end fire weather environment is rare for this time of year,” the SPC tweeted. “This is the first Extremely Critical risk area for the month of December since records began in 1999.”
The severe storms set to rake the northern stretches of the Midwest will also blow in quickly. The NWS issued an exclamation point-dotted special weather statement to underscore the threat:
Storms will be moving between 60 and 70 mph! Conditions will deteriorate very quickly. Unless preparations are made ahead of time, it may be hard to take adequate shelter when one notices storms beginning to approach. These are expected to be high end damaging wind producers, so pay close attention to warnings issued later today.
While climate change plays a role in nearly every boost in heat now, natural patterns like La Niña also open the door to this type of weather pattern. If there’s a small, small silver lining, it’s that the region hit hard by tornadoes is not forecast to deal with the brunt of the winds. But really, the last thing we need right now is another traumatic weather event. Personally, I’m voting to pause all weather until we figure out what’s going on here.
Update, 12/15/21, 1:50 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to include the latest forecast information, hazards, and what’s happening on the ground so far. Stay safe out there!