This article was last updated Wednesday evening. For the latest updates on this storm, through Thursday, see: Bomb cyclone bolts toward Upper Midwest after blasting Colorado and the Plains
An explosively intensifying winter storm centered over the Colorado Front Range continues to unleash a potpourri of extreme weather across the Plains states and Upper Midwest. The hurricane-force system has combined the worst weather of all four seasons into one — from a string of violent, tornadic thunderstorms to damaging winds, severe blizzard conditions and even flooding.
It’s a storm for the record books, strengthening from a run-of-the-mill weather disturbance into a historic cyclone in 24 hours. Its central pressure dropped 33 millibars from Tuesday to Wednesday, meeting the criteria of a meteorological “bomb.” The storm made this transformation over land, rather than water, which is rare.
On Wednesday morning, the storm’s pressure had dropped to the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane. Hurricane-force gusts hit Dallas (78 mph) as well as Denver (80 mph) and Colorado Springs (97 mph), which were also senduring blinding snow. A storm this extreme triggers extreme impacts, which were predicted to intensify into Wednesday night.
According to Weather.com, the blizzard stranded over 1,000 drivers on Colorado’s highways and the National Guard has been called in. Also, Denver International Airport closed all its runways, and multiple interstate highways were reported closed in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.
Cold air surging down from Canada into the backside of the system is leading to a “dangerous” blizzard from northeast Colorado to northwest Minnesota. Blizzard warnings stretch nearly 800 miles.
The clash of seasons has been dramatic in a number of spots, but few more so than Denver. Now under the blizzard warning, the Mile High City hit 62 degrees Tuesday before plummeting below freezing Wednesday morning as rain transitioned to heavy snow.
Accumulation of six to 12 inches was forecast as temperatures fall through the 20s and winds rage.
Reporting from Denver, veteran broadcast meteorologist Mike Seidel reported: “This is about as bad as I’ve ever been in ... winter-wise in the 27 years at the Weather Channel."
At Denver International Airport, sustained winds reached 55 mph with gusts to 75 mph at 11 a.m. local time, with heavy snow and visibility under a quarter mile.
Just before noon, the airport clocked an 80 mph gust, the strongest on record. Through midafternoon, winds had gusted over 58 mph for six hours while moderate to heavy snow occurred, exceeding official criteria for a blizzard. Hundreds of inbound and outbound flights (the majority) were canceled. Portions of Interstate 25 were shutdown due to “impossible" travel and numerous roads were closed in Wyoming.
“This is a serious blizzard!,” tweeted the National Weather Service office serving Denver and Boulder. “DO NOT EVEN ATTEMPT TO DRIVE IN THIS STORM.”
South of Denver, Colorado Springs logged a wind gust of 97 mph, its highest ever recorded.
North of Denver, Glenhaven registered a gust of 92 mph. The powerful winds raking Colorado put the number of customers without power at 135,000 and climbing.
The heaviest snowfall was expected from southeast Wyoming and western Nebraska into western and central South Dakota, with up to two feet coupled with 50 to 70 mph gusts — up to 80 mph at high elevations.
On the warm side of the cyclone, a thunderstorm squall line tore across Texas on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, with widespread damaging winds that topped 70 mph. A gust to 78 mph rocked Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the strongest since at least 1995. The winds ripped a roof off an Amazon warehouse near the airport.
More than 150,000 customers lost power in Texas from the violent winds.
And more dangerous thunderstorms are in the offing Wednesday. The Storm Prediction Center has designated portions of the lower Mississippi River Valley as an “enhanced risk” zone for severe weather, including eastern Arkansas, southwest Tennessee and the northwest corner of Mississippi.
Winds are also roaring outside of thunderstorms. High-wind warnings stretched from New Mexico to Nebraska for gusts up to 60 mph (and 80 to 100 mph at high elevations) while advisories for gusts of 40 to 50 mph extended as far east as western Tennessee.
The Weather Service in Amarillo, Tex., reported that several high profile vehicles were blown over while 26 rail cars toppled over a bridge in eastern N.M.
Meanwhile, heavy rainfall could lead to flooding from Kansas through the western Great Lakes. The Weather Service warned of “prolonged, major flooding” along the Missouri River and its tributaries Wednesday and Wednesday night. It said the combination of downpours and rapid snowmelt would probably elevate the river to major flood stage, not cresting until some time after the rain ends.
In eastern South Dakota, Iowa, southern and eastern Minnesota and much of Wisconsin, ice jams were expected on rivers because of the combination of rain, melting snow and thawing temperatures.
The Weather Service office serving Green Bay also warned that the periodic rains falling on a dense snowpack “will add weight to [snow-covered roofs], possibly leading to structural damage.”
Air pressures have been falling steadily while the storm gathers steam. Pueblo, Colo., saw its pressure sink to 970 millibars, unofficially its lowest on record, on Wednesday morning.
Wednesday afternoon, Dodge City, Kan., dropped to its lowest pressure ever recorded — 974.7 millibars, according to the National Weather Service.
To understand the significance of this record “low pressure,” consider a whirlpool generated by stirring your morning coffee. The more intense your stirring, the more pronounced the depression in the coffee’s surface. A dramatic dip indicates an intense cyclone, and in parts of Colorado and Kansas, the surface of this “atmospheric whirlpool” has dipped closer to the ground there than during any such system in the past.
The storm got its start on Tuesday when vigorous thunderstorms erupted in the Southwest. A funnel cloud whirled ominously over Mesa, Ariz and tornadoes touched down in Loving, N.M., and Hagerman, about 60 miles to the north-northwest.
Storms continued after dark from the Texas Panhandle to the Concho Valley after dark, a possible tornado touching down just northwest of Anton. Baseball-size hail left multiple vehicles destroyed farther south in Ward County along Interstate 20.
The sprawling storm system will sweep into the western Great Lakes on Thursday, but severe thunderstorms will be possible along the cold front from Mississippi and Alabama into southern Michigan, including a few tornadoes. Precipitation will change to snow over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Minnesota.
By Friday, it will weaken as it barrels into northeastern Canada, dragging the front across the eastern United States with showers along the Interstate 95 corridor.