GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — March 20 through March 26 is Severe Weather Awareness week in West Michigan. Here at Storm Team 8 we are taking some time to talk about strong to severe storms, outline the biggest threats we see here in Michigan and review what to do if caught in a severe weather situation.
One common occurrence that produces strong to damaging winds in West Michigan is gust fronts.
Gust fronts are a unique hazard because they can occur several miles out ahead of a storm. Gust fronts can be weak, only producing wind speeds of 30 mph, or strong, with winds upwards of 100 mph.
HOW GUST FRONTS FORM
Gust fronts occur when strong thunderstorms are able to pull fast winds from the top of the atmosphere down to the surface through a downdraft or rain shaft.
Gust fronts can be weak or strong, depending on the environment the storm has formed in. Some gust fronts stay very close to the actual thunderstorm, while others travel for many miles out ahead of the storm. When looking at a classic supercell on radar imagery, the gust front is usually located at or in front of the leading edge of the rain.
WHEN ARE GUST FRONTS MOST DANGEROUS?
Gust fronts will often push out well ahead of a parent thunderstorm, especially on hot, dry days. This can be very dangerous, because it can catch people seemly off guard. A storm may look like it is still several miles away on radar or in the sky, but the severe wind may already be at your doorstep.
One of the most devastating examples of this was in 2011, when a gust front hit during a Sugarland concert at an outdoor venue in Indiana. The storm that produce the wind had a severe thunderstorm warning issued for it, but the wind hit more than ten minutes before the storm itself. Seven died, and more than 50 were injured. Winds from the storm were estimated between 60 to 70 mph.
Often times, radar apps do a poor job picking up on gust fronts. Here in the Tracking Center we do have the ability to look at additional products and less-filtered radar data to spot gust fronts and alert the community if one is approaching.