The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stunning late night heat burst in Nebraska: 99 degrees at 5 am

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At 2:53 am central, it was a pleasant 73 degrees at Grand Island Airport in south central Nebraska. Just over two hours later, the temperature shot up to a blistering 99 degrees at 5:10 a.m., before the sun was up.

The phenomenon responsible for this sudden, dramatic rise in temperature is called a heat burst. Most common (though still relatively rare) in the Plains, last night’s burst was not confined to Grand Island, but also observed at several other reporting stations in Nebraska.

Wind gusts exceeding 50 mph accompanied the burst.

A heat burst requires the interaction of a decaying thunderstorm and a very dry air mass at high altitudes.

The National Weather Service office in Hastings, Nebraska describes, in great detail, how the process occurs:

A heat burst is caused when a shower or thunderstorm weakens over a layer of dry air. As the last of the precipitation from the weakening shower or thunderstorm falls through the layer of dry air, the precipitation begins evaporating thus causing the air to cool. As this air cools it will become more dense, eventually more dense when compared to the surrounding warmer air and as a result, begins descending to the surface at a high rate of speed. Eventually, all of the precipitation within the descending air evaporates. At this point the air is completely dry and because no more evaporation can occur, the air can no longer cool. The air however continues to descend toward the surface due to the momentum it has already acquired. As dry air descends through the atmosphere, compression due to increasing atmospheric pressure causes the the air to warm. It is important to note that the density of this air is now going to begin decreasing because of the increasing temperature. However, because the descending air already has a great deal of momentum carrying it to the surface, the increase in temperature and resultant decrease in density does little to slow the descending air.  So, the dry air continues to descend, all the while warming more and more due to the aforementioned compressional heating. Eventually, this descending air reaches the surface and the momentum, which was moving downward towards the surface, is now moving horizontally along the surface in all different directions, thus resulting in a strong wind!  In addition, the intrusion of the very warm and very dry airmass from aloft, will cause the temperature at the surface to increase very quickly, and the dewpoint at the surface to decrease very quickly.  Acquiring all the needed ingredients for a heat burst can be difficult, thus making the development and observance of a heat burst rare.

See also: What is a heat burst? (


National Weather Service write-up of South Dakota heat burst from May 14, 2013

Extreme temperature swings: midnight heat burst in Wichita (2011)