On Microbursts

I bet you are scared of tornados. Everybody is. The entire concept of the wind spinning into a funnel leading to the sky is completely disturbing. The damage they often do is horrifying. But I learned something the other night. Tornados have an evil twin that are equally destructive, unpredictable, and unknown by most people. They are called Microbursts. And my house was hit by one the other night.

Some context. Virginia and the eastern seaboard have experienced a record-breaking heatwave for the last two weeks. There has been nothing but unbearable temperatures that relentlessly have made our lives difficult. Our air conditioning units can only sustain about 85° at the very best and as human beings adapted to having 70° as the indoor norm, people lose their appetites and sleep very quickly. Some cannot bear the heat and suffer from heatstrokes, dehydration, and even death. Another storm took us by surprise about a week ago. It was called a derecho. It took people’s electricity - and air condtioning - for up to four days. About last Friday, many of us found relief in a 20° drop coming to us Sunday night. It was expected a temperature differential this significant would bring violent storms. But for some of us, it was more than that.

The storms came in as expected Sunday evening and were normal for a while. It came in pretty fast and brought great rain, lightning, and a small amount of hail. No huge deal. I unplugged my computers, grabbed my iPod, and headed for the sofa to watch. The power started flickering and I was mildly annoyed with the storm. Then it started to hail a little harder. I watched out the window as the wind began to strengthen, pushing the tree pretty hard. As the hail started to get stronger, I began to lose faith in the windows of my house and made way towards the closet. I knew this storm did not have a history nor signs of tornadoes, but I did knew the wind and the hail were increasing significantly. Right as I get in the closet, the power flickers again. Then it began. The hail just became powerful. I could hear it pounding against my roof. The winds started to increase. Increase. Increase. It became this horrendous howl resonating through every surface in the house. It became overwhelming instantly. It sounded like the wind was going to rip the house completely apart. It kept going and going. The only thing I could even experience was the howling of the wind and creaking pain of the house. At this point, I was praying quite loudly, as I did not expect to leave the closet with a roof still above my head. The wind was that strong! It sounded as if the hail had crashed through the skylights and was already in the house. The house was still shaking. After about three to five minutes of hell, it calmed down and got quiet again. I stayed in the closet a few more minutes. The power came back on and the alarm system began to go off. At that point, I knew that whatever just happened was not a tornado. It made little sense - tornados do not behave that way. I actually began to text people around me, thinking the same thing that hit me had hit the entire city. Boy, was I wrong.

After all of that madness, I knew that I had to go examine the house for damage. Surprisingly, there was no structural damage to be found. I was very shocked, I expected siding and tiles to be everywhere. The only thing I could find everywhere was green leaves. The ground looked like it was fall - but all the leaves were green. It was really strange. The trees looked to be holding up. Then I saw it. I looked in my front garden and there were piles upon piles of hailstones. I have never seen real hail before, but it was everywhere. These things were almost as big as a ping-pong ball an hour after the storm ended. Insane. I took my pictures and made my way back inside. The sounds of firetrucks resounded for a while. Thankfully, the skies were calm the rest of the night.

The next day, I look at the weather application on my iPod. I saw a severe weather indicator and noticed an indication for an prior event called a Microburst. I have never heard or learned about such an occurance before. I thought it was just a buzzword. My friend told me that she heard a tornado pass through downtown, but it turns out all the madness and destruction was that horriffic storm that I myself battled. The winds were clocked at 80mph. I began to research the subject. I have at least heard of all of the major wind events, I thought. I was wrong.

Now that I have shared my experience, I want to share a little about this type of storm so that you will not someday experience this horror without being acquainted. Let us start with the basics - a Microburst is a column of air that comes down from the sky at great spead and with great volume. The air hits the ground and disperses in several directions, creating straight-line winds with speeds up to 165mph. These bursts are not long-lived, but in their time can do a great amount of damage to structures and trees. In some ways, they can compare to tornadoes. If you have not yet learned about a Microburst, then they are rare to your locale. On the east coast, these events are associated with large amounts of rain and hail, which contribute to the energy of the system.

Microbursts are not easy to predict. There is no such concept as a ‘microburst watch’ or ‘microburst warning.’ They ocassionally have a signature that can be detected on radar, but their spontaneous nature does not have many known triggers. The best way to be prepared is to watch out for storms that are marked as ‘severe.’ When a severe storm is forcasted in your locality, stay inside. If there is hail and strong winds, be prepared to take cover. And when the wind begins to violently blow, run towards shelter. Since the event is shorter lived then tornadoes, you do not need to take cover for an extended period of time. When it sounds like the storm has cleared, remain indoors and begin to check for hazards. Do not check the outdoors until your area is clear of lightning. Watch for downed power lines and trees.

There is also another event known as a ‘macroburst’ that is a larger varient of Microbursts. They last longer and are capable of more widespread damage. The premice remaines the same though - plenty of damage to trees.

Hopefully, you now understand Micro and Macrobursts well enough to remain safe if one occurs around you. Remember that common sense goes a long way towards your safety, that basements are your friend in storms, and that there are sometimes it is better to just take shelter indoors.