James WX Blog: A stormy two weeks, but what makes a storm severe?

Wx Blog

In a span of less than two weeks, from August 6 through August 18, our viewing area saw severe storms on six of those days. That’s almost half over that span. Something that is pretty impressive for Western New York. We had a relatively active jet stream with several rounds of strong storms not only creating strong winds, but often hail and a few tornado warnings right around the Finger Lakes. While none of these tornado warnings verified, it was a testament to how active our region has been over those two weeks.

So what makes a storm severe? How do we decipher one storm from the next? We define a severe storm after the fact by looking at what it produces. It can produce one, two, or all three of these options and get the severe criterion:

  1. Hail at least 1” in diameter
  2. Wind gusts 58 mph or greater
  3. Tornado

A few notes here. Storms get a “Severe Thunderstorm Warning” when the NWS local office (Buffalo for us) issues one based on how a storm looks to observers, radar, satellite, etc. with the assumption that it could produce one of the three above. It will continue to warn for the area ahead of the storm as long as they think it will continue to bring that severe threat. When you get that warning, it’s best to get inside. That’s the number one piece of advice we can give here. Cliche, but it works: “If thunder roars, head indoors”

Yes, lightning kills and is a major threat, but if lightning was a part of the criterion then most storms would get a warning and that may result in a “Boy cried wolf” scenario with high false alarm rates. Yes, flooding kills and is probably the biggest threat when it comes to these storms especially around Western New York and the Finger Lakes. Flooding is taken care of with “Flash Flood Warning” and “Flood Warning” so is separate from the “Severe Thunderstorm Warning”

In general, we can grant ourselves a pass when it comes to naming severe weather and can call any life threatening situation that has to do with the weather severe. Heavy lake-effect snow, high winds (without a thunderstorm) ice, and even lake flooding. The goal in the end is to protect life and property – Period.

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