Ask Ellen: Why didn’t Michigan get hit as hard in last night’s storms?

Ask Ellen

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday, July 28 was met with a Moderate Risk for West Michigan from the Storm Prediction Center. This doesn’t happen very often. In fact, in the last 10 years, Grand Rapids has only been included in two “Moderate Risks” for severe storms by the Storm Prediction Center.

Just so you know, the Storm Prediction Center holds the leading experts in severe weather prediction in the country. They are very, very good at their job. They also are in charge of issuing storm outlooks daily for every state in the country.

The environment on Wednesday night was so primed for severe weather, the folks there increased our risk area from “Slight” all the way up to “Moderate,” a 4 out of 5 on the risk scale within 12 hours. The atmosphere was primed for severe storms.

The storms were expected to fire late in western Wisconsin, and did. At about 9 p.m., they ignited. Cloud tops were at 55,000 feet and the Storm Prediction Center issued a statement that this was a “Particularly Dangerous Situation.”

Immediately, storms reached severe thunderstorm strength and began producing winds of 60 to 75 mph, hail and tornado reports.

The storms were so powerful, they were sucking up tons of surface moisture and heat and lofting it up to the top of the troposphere. You can see this happening just before midnight with the light rain in Michigan and the cloud deck in Wisconsin.

Soon, it became apparent that storms were moving more south than east. The official speed was SSE at 50 mph.

Upper-level winds were blowing from west to east. This was helping to carry some of that lofted moisture into Michigan as light rain. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the storms were still firing with less light rain contamination.

Storms will often move and thrive where there is available energy. With the light rain being pushed into Michigan, the energy environment aloft just became better in Wisconsin, coaxing storm formation to drop south more than east.

By 2 a.m., the line of storms had indeed begun to move into Michigan, but it was so hindered by the preemptive light rain that it barely boasted more than a 15 mph wind gust. Meanwhile, storms were continuing to unload high winds and tornadoes through Wisconsin.

Between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., the atmosphere had one more boost to play: A low level jet. This kicked in fresh instability for the Michigan cells.

Had the line of storms moved into our state as planned, this low-level jet could have accelerated storms to a severe enough potential to drop wind speeds of up to 90 mph. Instead, the low level jet resurrected Michigan’s wimpy cells to severe strength, triggering Severe Thunderstorm Warnings here, and a slew of light-end wind damage reports.

In the end, 244 storm reports were made as a result of this line and technically, it fell within the SPC’s Moderate Risk area quite well.

But bottom line: The storms were just so strong at the onset, it limited the severe potential for Michigan. It was like an athlete that goes too hard at the start of a race, only to fall short at the finish.

The storms were so exceptional at the beginning of the night, that the lofted moisture cost Michigan a night of widespread damage, and all of us here in Michigan are thankful for that.

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