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Tornadoes, snow squalls, and high temps hit the Midwest in a wild winter storm

An electronic overhead sign warns motorists headed westbound on Interstate 70 at Ward Road as high winds strafed the Denver metropolitan area Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, in Arvada, Colo. A wind storm ripped through communities along Colorado's Front Range Wednesday, leaving a trail of property damage in its wake.
David Zalubowski
An electronic overhead sign warns motorists headed westbound on Interstate 70 at Ward Road as high winds strafed the Denver metropolitan area Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, in Arvada, Colo. A wind storm ripped through communities along Colorado's Front Range Wednesday, leaving a trail of property damage in its wake.

Updated December 16, 2021 at 6:32 AM ET

Wild weather struck the Midwest Wednesday causing snow squalls, dust storms, high winds, thunderstorms and even tornadoes in some areas.

The alarming weather events in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, downed trees, caused road closures, and left thousands of residents in multiple stateswithout power well until the morning.

In Nebraska alone,officials reported wildfires, tornadoes, high winds, rain and snow that seriously impacted traffic and was reportedly blamed for overturned vehicles.

Elsewhere, residents felt a blast of record-breaking warmth. On Wednesday, several cities tied or broke December daily or monthly records thanks to warmer-than-usual weather, according to the National Weather Prediction Center.

The reason for the wild weather comes down to a combination of factors, according to Nicholas Bond with the University of Washington. Bond is a principal research scientist at the university's Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean and Ecosystem Studies.

"The weather is in some ways chaotic. Strong storms can form when things can fit together just right," he said. "There's quite a bit of random quality to that."

Part of all of this is thanks to warmer-than-usual air moving further north. This year we are also experiencing a La Niña year, he said. This means below-normal temperatures will be felt along portions of the northern tier of the U.S. while much of the South experiences above-normal temperatures.

Bond added that on Wednesday there was a "highly perturbed atmospheric circulation" and a really strong ridge of high pressure that delivered some really unusually warm air to the affected regions.

All of those elements came together Wednesday to cause serious disruption in the Midwest, he said.

Record-breaking temperatures

In Wisconsin, record high temperatures were broken in Madison and Milwaukee by 16 and 12 degrees.

The all time record high in Madison for the month of December was also broken by 3 degrees. The Wisconsin December state record, which was previously 70, was also broken with a high of 72 in Boscobel according to the NWS in Milwaukee.

As of 8:55 a.m. Wednesday, Omaha had tied its record high temperature for the day at 61°, the NWS reported, adding, "This record will be smashed today by about 10°."

The warmest temperature ever recorded in the city was in 1939 when it reached 72° in the month of December.

Whipping winds knock out power

The NWS said Wednesday marked the day with the most significant wind gusts — more than 75 mph — in a single day since at least 2004. The organization said there were at least 55 reported significant wind gusts Wednesday and counting.

Earlier in the day, NWS warned of more than 60 mph winds, with embedded gusts of more than 80 mph from New Mexico to Michigan.

A severe thunderstorm warning was issued in Wichita, Kan., where intense winds of up to 70 mph knocked out power to more than 139,000 Evergy customers as of 6 p.m. CST.

Dangerously high winds in Nebraska surpassed 90 mph. In Lincoln, Neb., one reporter from the local ABC News affiliate captured footage of 93 mph windspummeling the parking lot of the news station.

Earlier Wednesday, warnings of winds up to 70 mph,prompted many k-12 school officials to cancel classes or move to online learning for the day. Businesses also adjusted hours or closed while waiting out the storm.

"Having windy days is not atypical this time of year late fall into early winter," Shawn Rossi, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Hastings, told Nebraska Public Media. "This is just a very potent system that's going to be intensifying that is going to really impact our area."

The station also reported the strong smell of smoke and ash and smog throughout the state. "It is believed that the smoke is coming from fires in Kansas," according to the station.

Later it was discovered that a large grass fire in northwest Russell County, Kansas was to blame for the very smoky skies over Lincoln.

People in other states, including Wisconsin and Iowa also reported smelling thick smoke likely from that same wildfire.

The NWS urged residents to avoid travel as blowing dust reduced visibility to near zero.

NWS officials in Wichita issued a similar warning. Wind gusts of 60 to 85 mph spreading from west to east. "Blowing dust could reduce visibility to less than half a mile at times," the NWS warned.

In Colorado, wind gusts reached 95 mph in the areas near the foothills, and officials there also cautioned drivers to stay off the road.

Bond cautioned against becoming fearful that wild weather patterns will become the norm thanks to climate change.

"Some things are changing, but its not like we are going to see tornadoes all the time in Minnesota in December," he said.

"As oceans continue to warm and the atmosphere continues to warm, it is more likely for severe weather to happen in colder parts of the year," he said. "This particular event was just a highly unusual weather pattern."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.

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