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Strong winds in Kansas whip up dust, blow over semitrailers

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The National Weather Service predicted windy weather for Kansas on Wednesday

A powerful storm system blowing through the Great Plains and Midwest closed highways and prompted numerous tornado warnings.

OMAHA — A powerful storm system swept across the Great Plains and Midwest on Wednesday, closing highways in western Kansas, spawning numerous tornado warnings in Nebraska and raising concerns about fires because of unusually high temperatures.

The strong winds whipped up dust that reduced visibility to zero west of Wakeeney, the Kansas Department of Transportation said, and caused at least four semitrailers to blow over. Kansas officials closed I-70 from the Colorado border to Salina, as well as all state highways in nine counties in northwest Kansas.

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for several counties in eastern Nebraska, northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri on Wednesday afternoon. Ryan Pfannkuch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Hastings, Nebraska, said unconfirmed tornadoes were reported south of Hastings and near Aurora.

The system follows devastating tornadoes last weekend that cut a path through states including Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people.

The National Weather Service issued a high wind warning for an area stretching from New Mexico to upper Michigan, including Wisconsin and Illinois. Gusts topping 80 mph were recorded in the Texas Panhandle and western Kansas. The weather service said an automated observation site in Lamar, Colorado, recorded a gust of 107 mph Wednesday morning. Wind gusts of 100 mph were reported in Russell, Kansas.

Officials also warned of a dangerous fire risk along the western edge of the weather system, where conditions were dry.

A wildfire prompted Sheridan County officials to evacuate a few homes near Quinter in northwest Kansas. Emergency management director Don Koerperich did not have an estimate of how big the fire was but said, “I'm glad it wasn't near any towns.” Other fires were reported in Russell and Ellis counties.

Scientists say extreme weather events and warmer temperatures, much like what’s happening, are more likely to occur with human-caused climate change. However, scientifically attributing a specific event like this storm system to global warming requires specific analysis and computer simulations that take time and sometimes show no clear connection.

“I think we also need to stop asking the question of whether or not this event was caused by climate change. All events nowadays are augmented by climate change,” said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Victor Gensini. “We need to be asking, `To what extent did climate change play a role and how likely was this event to occur in the absence of climate change?'”

The unusually warm temperatures on Wednesday were due in part to record high ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which wouldn’t have happened without global warming, said Jeff Masters, a Yale Climate Connections meteorologist who cofounded Weather Underground.

“That record heat is helping feed heat and moisture into today’s storms, increasing their damage potential,” he said.

Damaging winds were likely to bring down trees and power lines, leading to power outages, the National Weather Service warned. Some schools in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa either canceled in-person classes or closed early.

Officials in Ashland, Kansas, shut down the town's power supply for a few hours to reduce the threat of fire after multiple power poles were knocked down.

The system blew into the Plains from Colorado, where high winds knocked out power, closed roads and highways and delayed or canceled hundreds of flights. The weather service said a wind gust of 100 mph was recorded on the airfield at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Blaire Brush, a spokeswoman for the military academy, said windows on multiple cars and buildings were shattered during the windstorm. She did not know whether the windows were smashed by objects flung by the wind or from the force of a gust.