Why the Weather on the Great Plains Is So Extreme

Brandi Simons/Getty Images
Brandi Simons/Getty Images

It can be tough to live on the Great Plains. The flat terrain gives way to breathtaking views of both land and sky, but the smooth, fertile land is both good fortune and a curse when it comes to the weather. Whether it's an enormous thunderstorm or a ferocious blizzard, there's rarely a dull day when it comes to weather in the middle of the country. Just what is it about the central United States that makes the weather there so extreme?

The unique geography that makes this part of the country so grand is what exposes it to some of the most extreme weather nature can produce. The Plains are bounded by the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Canadian Prairies to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. The tall, jagged mountains of the Rockies act like an atmospheric dam, forcing hot air from the south and cold air from the north to pool up over the Plains. This helps to trigger some of the most interesting weather in the world.

Most major weather events around the world are set in motion by jet streams, which are fast-moving currents of air that wrap around the planet. Straight, rigid jet streams don't result in much interesting weather, but things can get wild when the jet stream grows wavy. Sharp dips in the jet stream, called troughs, can cause low-pressure systems to develop at the surface.

When these troughs clear the Rocky Mountains in the western U.S., diverging winds in the upper atmosphere cause air to rise from the surface, leading to the development of a low-pressure system over the Plains. These lows can be the size of a single state or sprawl across the entire country from north to south. We see these storm systems most often during the winter and spring, when the jet stream is most active over the United States.

The flat land acts like an expressway, helping these fledgling low-pressure systems draw enormous amounts of tropical air from the south and, during the winter, extremely cold air from deep in the Arctic. The lack of natural obstacles allows this air to flow toward storm systems virtually unimpeded, which can lead to explosive thunderstorms during the warm months and powerful and bone-chilling blizzards during the winter.

This atmospheric expressway doesn't stop at precipitation; it's also why the central Plains can have brutal heat waves and bitter cold snaps. It's not uncommon for areas in the north-central United States to struggle to climb above 0°F for days at a time during the dead of winter, and it's similarly common for places like Oklahoma and Texas to see temperatures above 100°F for a week or longer during the summer's worst heat.

Denver's Temperature Dropped a Record 64 Degrees In 24 Hours

Leonid Ikan/iStock via Getty Images
Leonid Ikan/iStock via Getty Images

One sure sign summer is over: On Wednesday, residents of Denver, Colorado were experiencing a comfortable 82-degree day. Just before midnight, the temperature dropped to 29 degrees. Between Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, the Denver airport recorded a differential of 79 degrees down to 24 degrees. At one point on Wednesday, a staggering 45-degree drop was seen in the span of just three hours.

All told, a one-day span saw a 64-degree change in temperature, from a high of 83 to a low of 19, a record for the state in the month of October and just two degrees shy of matching Denver’s all-time record drop of 66 degrees on January 25, 1872. On that date, the temperature plummeted from 46 degrees to -20 degrees.

Back to 2019: Citizens tried their best to cope with the jarring transition in their environment, to mixed success. On Wednesday, the city’s Washington Park was full of joggers and shorts-wearing outdoor enthusiasts. Thursday, only the most devoted runners were out, bundled up against the frigid weather.

The cold snap also brought with it some freezing drizzle which prompted several vehicular accidents, including 200 reported during Thursday's morning commute. It’s expected to warm up some in the coming days, but residents shouldn't get too comfortable: Melting ice could lead to potholes.

[h/t KRDO]

Fall Foliage Is Running Late This Year

Free art director/iStock via Getty Images
Free art director/iStock via Getty Images

The August arrival of the pumpkin spice latte might have you feeling like fall is in full swing already, but plants aren’t quite so impressionable. According to Travel + Leisure, the best fall foliage could be coming a little later than usual this year.

Historically, the vibrant transformation starts to sweep through northern regions of the Rocky Mountains, Minnesota, and New England in mid-September, and reaches its peak by the end of the month. Other areas, including the Appalachians and Midwest states, don’t see the brightest autumn leaves until early or mid-October. The Weather Channel reports that this year, however, the forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts unseasonably warm temperatures for the next two weeks, which could impede the color-changing process.

Warm temperatures aren’t necessarily bad for fall foliage, as long as they occur during the day and are offset by cool nights. Since meteorologists don’t expect the overnight temperatures to drop off yet, plants will likely continue producing enough chlorophyll to keep their leaves green in the coming days.

The good news is that this year’s fall foliage should only be about a week late, and meteorologist David Epstein thinks that when leaves do start to change color, we’re in for an especially beautiful treat. If the current weather forecast holds, he told Boston.com, we'll "see a longer season than last year, we’d see a more vibrant season than last year, and it would come on a little earlier than last year, which was so late.”

Though poor weather conditions like early snow, heavy rain, drought, or strong winds can cause leaves to fall prematurely, most trees right now are in a good position to deliver a brilliant display of color after a healthy, rain-filled summer.

Find out when you’ll experience peak fall foliage in your area with this interactive map.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER