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An unusually strong late-winter storm is predicted to intensify explosively in the western Plains on Tuesday into Wednesday, unleashing flooding rains, severe storms, raging winds and blizzard conditions in the middle of the nation.
The zone from Texas north through the Dakotas and Minnesota is expected be hit hardest by the powerhouse storm. It is likely to meet the criteria of a “bomb cyclone,” its pressure dropping 24 millibars in 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. The lower the pressure and the faster it falls, the more intense the storm.
Roaring, potentially damaging winds will affect an enormous area. High-wind watches and warnings have been posted from southeastern New Mexico through Nebraska. Gusts are expected to reach 60 mph late Tuesday into Wednesday, and up to 80 mph to 100 mph in the high terrain, in southwest Texas and southeast New Mexico.
“This is a potentially dangerous wind event,” warned the National Weather Service office in Midland, Tex.
Models project the storm’s pressure to drop to between 970 millibars and 975 millibars as it barrels across Kansas, challenging the lowest pressure recorded in parts of the state.
“Models remain consistent developing one of the more dynamic systems I have seen in quite some time for Kansas” midweek, wrote a forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Wichita.
The storm was born from a disturbance over the Pacific Ocean that came ashore in northern Mexico on Monday night. It is now expected to ride along the U.S.-Mexico border, ejecting from the desert southwest into eastern Colorado and western Kansas into Wednesday.
“As powerful Plains storm reaches maximum intensity or lowest pressure, it will have an ‘eye like’ feature similar to a hurricane,” tweeted Ryan Maue, meteorologist for Weathermodels.com.
Indeed, the predicted minimum pressure of this storm, around 970 millibars to 975 millibars, is equivalent to a low-end hurricane. “While not a tropical system, winds will rival what’s seen in a Category 1 hurricane,” Maue tweeted.
The storm’s massive wind field is but one of its many hazards. The storm will also generate heavy precipitation — both rain and snow — and severe thunderstorms depending on location.
Blizzard conditions are expected develop on the storm’s cold side in the western and northern Plains on Wednesday into Thursday, including northeast Colorado, southeast Wyoming, western Nebraska, southwest and central South Dakota, eastern North Dakota, and northwest Minnesota. Blizzard and winter storm warnings and winter storm watches cover much of this territory.
Conditions are expected to be most severe in the blizzard warning zone, which covers northeast Colorado, southeast Wyoming, western Nebraska and southwest South Dakota. Here, 10 inches to 20 inches of snow and wind gusts over 60 mph are possible, creating whiteout conditions.
“Travel could be very difficult to impossible,” the Weather Service warned. It also cautioned the high winds could lead to power outages.
In the storm’s warm sector, a generalized heavy rainfall capable of causing flooding is a threat from Kansas to western Wisconsin late Tuesday night through Wednesday. One inch to three inches of rain is predicted to fall on top of saturated soils.
In addition, from Nebraska through southeast South Dakota into southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, the combination of heavy rain and thawing snow and ice could exacerbate flooding and lead to ice jams on area rivers.
Severe storm threat
Severe thunderstorms, capable of producing damaging winds and hail, are a concern along the storm’s southern flank from Texas to the mid-South. The threat will progress from west to east late Tuesday into Thursday.
From eastern New Mexico to western Oklahoma, there is an elevated risk of a severe storm Tuesday afternoon into Tuesday night. “Thunderstorms should produce large hail, damaging wind and a few tornadoes [Tuesday afternoon] over parts of southeastern New Mexico and far west Texas,” the Weather Service Storm Prediction Center wrote. “The threat will transition mostly to severe wind as a complex of storms crosses west-central Texas [Tuesday night].”
On Wednesday into Thursday, the risk of severe storms shifts more to the mid-South from eastern Texas through Arkansas on Wednesday and from Mississippi and Alabama into central Tennessee on Thursday. Flash flooding could become an issue in storms that hit northern Mississippi and Tennessee, which saw record rainfall in February.
Although the storm peaks in intensity Wednesday, it is forecast to produce a swath of strong winds in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes on Wednesday night into Thursday as it cuts through southeast Minnesota and Wisconsin.
As noted, a few severe storms could sweep across the South on Thursday, while on the north side rain showers will scatter across the eastern Great Lakes, changing to snow over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Minnesota.
By Friday, it will weaken as it barrels into northeastern Canada, dragging a cold front across the eastern United States with showers along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Jason Samenow 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. Follow