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Savage thunderstorm complex engulfing central U.S., headed towards Memphis

Infrared satellite view of mesoscale convection system at noon ET. (NASA)
Infrared satellite view of mesoscale convection system at noon ET. (NASA)

A beastly cluster of thunderstorms, know as a mesoscale convective system (MCS), developed overnight in the central High Plains and is plowing a destructive path towards western Tennessee.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center (SPC) writes: “An intense MCS comprised of supercells and bowing structures is in progress.”

SPC warns widespread damaging winds, large hail, and a few tornadoes are possible along the track of this system from southeast Kansas and Northeast Oklahoma through southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and then into western Tennessee. It has already passed through the major population centers of Springfield and Joplin, Missouri and is eyeing Memphis later this afternoon.  This zone is highlighted for a moderate risk of severe thunderstorms.


Severe thunderstorm risk outlook (NWS SPC)

Here’s a radar loop posted to Twitter from meteorologist Brad Panovich out of Charlotte, NC, showing the system’s progression late this morning through eastern Kansas and southwest Missouri:

(Brad Panovich via Twitter)
(Brad Panovich via Twitter)

“An MCS is defined as a group of individual thunderstorms which normally persists for several hours or more,” the National Weather Service Facebook page explains.  “This particular system … is very large and extremely well-organized.”

This nasty storm complex has already produced over 40 reports of damaging winds, mostly in southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri.  The Joplin airport clocked a wind gust to 64 mph, and peak winds have been estimated in the 50-70 mph range along the MCS’s path.

The MCS has been a prolific lightning producer.  The Weather Channel, for example, reported more than 5,500 lightning strikes in 30 minutes between 10:12 and 10:42 a.m. central time.

The system also produced large hail in northern Oklahoma.

The MCS formed and has tracked along a cold front sprawled across the southern U.S. separating extremely humid, unstable air to its south and much cooler, drier air to the north.


(NWS)

The amount of convective available potential energy (CAPE) – a fancy way of describing fuel available to storms – is very high (up to around 4,000) just south of the front where the MCS is most intense.


High resolution NAM model simulation of convective available potential energy (CAPE) at 2 p.m. ET or 1 p.m. CT. (WeatherBell.com)

Links to track this MCS:

* Satellite view
* Radar view
* Active severe weather watches
* Active severe thunderstorm warnings
* Severe storm/damage reports

You can learn more about MCSs in excruciating detail in this academic paper by Robert Houze of the University of Washington: Mesoscale Convective Systems

Jason is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.
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