The Southern Plains Is at High Risk of 'Violent' Tornadoes on Monday

Damage from April tornadoes in the Southeast.
Photo: AP

The South saw a few dozen tornadoes over the weekend, but Monday’s conditions are ripe for something much worse. The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a high alert forecast for tornadoes across parts of Texas and Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City. The storms that could spawn them will also unleash damaging hail and heavy rain over an even wider area, and the potential for flash floods is also high, creating a panoply of dangerous, life-threatening weather.

Two million Americans in northern Texas and Oklahoma awoke this morning to an extremely dire weather forecast. The region is in a zone of high risk for severe weather, the worst category of risk issued by the NWS Storm Prediction Center and the first time its made that designation in two years. In its forecast, the agency said the region could face an “outbreak of tornadoes, some potentially long-track and violent.” Late on Monday morning, the agency also noted that it was seeing a “very rare combination” of conditions were setting up for a dangerous afternoon and evening. Other parts of the Southern Plains are facing critical and enhanced risks of severe weather, but it’s the high-risk area that’s most troublesome. Atmospheric scientist Marshall Shepherd tweeted this is a “VERY DANGEROUS situation.”

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And reading the official description, it’s easy to see why. The NWS only issues it when it expects storms that are “long-lived, very widespread, and particularly intense.” While tornadoes are clearly the most eye-opening concern, Monday’s storms are also likely to unleash hail, heavy rain, and powerful straight-line winds all of which can cause widespread damage. Flash flood watches and warnings are also up across the region with 4 inches of rain likely in many locations. Up to 10 inches of rain could fall locally, though, in northern Oklahoma according to Capital Weather Gang. Those areas are already dealing with waterlogged soil that can’t absorb that much rain, which is why the risk of flash floods is so high. If those heavy rain bands pass over Oklahoma City as opposed to more lightly populated areas, it could make responding to any other disasters that much harder.

The setup for these powerful storms is an influx of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico already visible on satellite imagery that will clash with cooler, drier air racing down from the Rockies. The clash of warm and cool and wet and dry coupled with winds whipping in different directions can lead to instability in the atmosphere that helps spawn tornadoes.

Satellite imagery showing precipitable water on Monday with a plume of moist air clearly moving from the Gulf of Mexico into the Southern Plains.
Gif: CIMSS

The same setup has been in place all weekend. The NWS received 31 initial tornado reports on Saturday and Sunday in addition to hundreds of other reports of hail and wind damage across the U.S.

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Large outbreaks of tornadoes have become more common and climate change may be in part responsible, though researchers are still sussing out those connections. There is, however, ample research showing heavy downpours like the ones that are likely today have become more commonplace due to climate change and the fact that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water.

Monday’s forecast takes on even more ominous overtones because it’s six years to the day after the infamous Moore Tornado, a monster twister that killed 24 and flattened entire neighborhoods in suburban Oklahoma City with winds that reached 210 mph. That doesn’t mean this Monday’s storms will do the same, but the lessons of six years ago haven’t been lost on authorities. The school district is among dozens who have canceled classes on Monday.

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And if you live in the region, you should also heed lessons of severe weather outbreaks past. Even if you live outside the high-risk area, tornadoes and other gnarly weather are still possible and you should pay attention to warnings. the NWS Norman office tweeted a graphic that lays out important steps to prepare, including knowing where to shelter in case severe weather does hit. In the case of tornadoes, sheltering in a framed structure on the lowest level as far from the outside as possible offers the best chance of survival. The NWS has a whole checklist of ways to prepare and stay safe. And on a day like today, it’s probably a good idea to review it if you’re in the danger zone.

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