Severe Weather 101: Straight Line Winds

WICHITA COUNTY (KFDX/KJTL) — As part of our "Severe Weather 101" series, Dan Dickens explained the dangers of straight-line winds.

A straight-line wind is any strong wind resulting from a thunderstorm that does not rotate. Instead of rotating above the ground, the action takes place from the ground up and down, and it can be very dangerous.

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Straight-line winds form when cool, dry air forms inside the storm system of a thunderstorm. This air builds up during the storm as condensation in the form of rain and continues to cool the air down, eventually becoming heavier than the surrounding warm air.

Because there's not only a weight difference but also a temperature and density shift, the storm system pushes the dry air downward at a high speed.

As the colder air reaches the surface, it spreads, causing fast-moving gusts of wind.

Rick Smith from the National Weather Service also explained the dangers of those powerful winds.

"Straight-line winds can be just as dangerous as a tornado. Straight-line winds from a thunderstorm can reach speeds over 100 miles per hour, and that's not that uncommon for that to happen," Smith explained. "So, if your house, your mobile home, or your business is hit by 100-mph straight-line winds, there's not a lot of difference between getting hit by a 100-mph tornado."

Smith added it can be difficult to determine the difference between the damage of straight-line winds versus tornadoes.

"The vast majority of wind damage that happens is caused by straight-line winds. Tornadoes, even around here, are exceptionally rare. It's sometimes difficult to determine with 100-percent certainty which one of those it was and, in some cases, it may be a mix of these," Smith explained. "Even in straight line winds, there could be a little gust of wind that swirls briefly that can cause a tornado, cause it to look like tornado damage, so there's a lot of detective work that goes on after the fact."

It's important to note that the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm warning when straight-line winds are expected.

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