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Bolt from the blue

Gene Blevins/REUTERS

You’ve heard the expression before: “bolt from the blue” or “out of the blue”. I’m referring to a weather phenomenon that claims more lives in the USA than tornadoes and hurricane combined — lightning. Every year nearly a dozen people are killed by lightning, struck dead with blue sky directly overhead, a thunderstorm 5-10 miles away. Lightning can travel horizontally up to 10 miles away from the parent thunderhead. The solution? Wait at least 30 minutes after hearing the last thunderclap before heading back outside, to be absolutely safe. Remind your kids about the 30-30 Rule. If you can count 30 seconds between seeing the “flash” of lightning and hearing the “bang” of thunder, you’re in danger — time to head indoors. And at the tail end of a storm wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunder before venturing back outside. Just because the rain has subsided does NOT mean the lightning risk has passed. The Twin Cities area experiences an average of 35 “lightning days” every year.

 Here are more tips that a thunderstorm may be especially severe:

• Lightning can be detected on your AM radio. These electromagnetic bursts show up as static on your AM radio dial. If you hear nearly continuous static it’s a tip-off that a line of thunderstorms may be approaching.

• Thunderstorms are most likely around the dinner hour, when the atmosphere is most unstable.

• Before a storm strikes winds at the ground usually blow from the south or southeast. T-storms are rare when surface winds are blowing from the west, northwest or north.

• Look for cues in nature: the old proverb “birds fly low before a storm” has some scientific merit: apparently birds fly near the ground to relieve air pressure in their ears; the barometer usually falls sharply ahead of a T-storm.

• An eerie, greenish color to the sky and large hail are tip-offs that a storm may be especially severe, even capable of spinning up a tornado.

According to SPC, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, there is a slight risk of severe storms over southeastern Minnesota and all of Wisconsin Wednesday, a moderate risk from near St. Louis to Chicago (where a significant tornado outbreak is expected later in the day).

SPC now predicts the probability of severe weather within 15 miles of any point. For example, Wednesday there is a 15% chance of 58 mph+ winds and/or 1″+ hail over southeastern Minnesota, but that rises to a 45% risk from Missouri to Illinois. If you want to know the risk of severe storms you can check out the details for yourself by clicking on the SPC Outlook, which is updated 24 hours/day. There is a wealth of severe storm information here.

Weather Headlines

• Best chance of rain/T-storms: first thing today (wet roads may slow down the AM commute in some towns).

• Winds shift to the west later today, gusting past 30 mph. at times.

• Basically dry from midday Wednesday into Thursday.

• Thursday: nicest day in sight with bright sun and less wind.

• Computer models print out another .20″ of rain Friday.

• Weekend outlook: Saturday looks like the sunnier, nicer day. Showers/T-storms may spread across northern Minnesota Sunday PM, possibly reaching the St. Cloud area by mid afternoon.

Paul’s Column

Life is all about problem-solving. I try explaining this to my kids, and I think they get it. Good teachers, parents and friends can arm you with the tools you need to solve just about any problem, whether it’s work-related or something going poof at home. My idea of heaven: a beautiful, peaceful, loving place (with no bills and no problems to solve). What would I do with all that extra time? I hope I have the opportunity to find out. My latest headaches: a dishwasher that doesn’t work, and drops of water collecting under the crystal of my watch. Where did THAT come from? Yes, it’s always something, and none of us are immune to the daily hassles of life.

Speaking of problem-solving, the “weather problem” is more vexing than usual. As usual the big question has to do with timing. An eastbound cool front will spark showers early in the day; my hunch is that this wind-shift line will be well east of the Twin Cities before it has a chance to spark any strong to severe T-storms. There may be a significant tornado outbreak 100-200 miles to our south and east later today, but I think most of the fireworks will be in southern Wisconsin, the Chicago area, southwest to near St. Louis. We’ve had a few thunderstorms this spring, but so far we’ve avoided any major severe weather outbreaks. We are overdue for a severe storm event, in fact statistically we should experience our first tornado in Minnesota by the end of May. I’m perfectly happy and content not having to track spinning, pulsating red blobs on Doppler radar, but sooner or later the law of averages will catch up with us and we’ll be bombarded with watches and warnings close to home. A gentle reminder: were it not for T-storms our climate would be similar to that of New Mexico from April to October (ie too dry to grow the crops that sustain Minnesota’s farmers). Less than 1 in 10 thunderstorms will ever turn severe, on average. And less than 1 in 150 thunderstorms will ever mutate into a spinning “supercell” capable of large, damaging hail and tornadoes. Yes, any thunderstorm, by definition, is potentially dangerous, capable of cloud to ground lightning, but if you use common sense there’s no reason why you can’t ride out any storm with a low risk of being struck.

Today you’ll notice a gradual clearing trend, along with a gusty west wind reaching 35 mph at times. After-school activities are not in peril. Thursday looks pretty fantastic with far less wind and enough sun for low 60s. Another round of showers and possible thunder arrives Friday, but this next frontal system should sail off to the east in time for a mostly-beautiful Saturday, probably the finer day of the weekend. Computer models are hinting at an unsettled Sunday, with the best chance of mostly-PM T-storms over the northern third of Minnesota, but I can’t rule out a few storms creeping south into the metro area. Most of the weekend should be dry, and Saturday will be an ORDER OF MAGNITUDE better than last Saturday, our ill-fated Fishing Opener, when it snowed in far northern Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota is the stuff of weather lore, all of us are reluctant weather warriors. But we’ll get a break this upcoming weekend. Time to check out the cabin (and traffic on I-94). Speaking of hassles …

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