D.C. derecho: Storm that hit capital was fast, destructive — and rare
A fast-moving, violent thunderstorm complex known as a derecho charged across the Northeast on Friday, with high winds clocked in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and parts of Virginia, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Derechos, which bring wind at speeds upward of 58 mph and resulting damage akin to that from hurricanes or tornadoes, occur only about once every four years.
The Washington Post
It's a hurricane. It's a tornado. No, it's a derecho.
Only a meteorologist was likely to have made the right guess about the violent storm system that hit the Washington, D.C., area Friday night. Derechos occur only about once every four years in the District of Columbia area, according to the National Weather Service. They are more likely in the Midwest and Great Lakes, between May and July.
A derecho is a fast-moving, long-lived, large, violent thunderstorm complex. By definition, it creates wind damage along a swath of more than 240 miles and produces wind gusts of at least 58 mph.
Friday night's derecho raced along at speeds of more than 60 mph, with gusts clocked at 65 mph in Rockville, Md., and at 79 mph in Reston, Va. It formed west of Chicago about 11 a.m. and by midnight approached the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the damage it can do mimics that of a hurricane or tornado, a derecho moves in one more or less straight direction. "Derecho" is a Spanish word that can be defined as "straight ahead," and was chosen as a counterpoint to "tornado," the whirling windstorm whose name is thought to derive from the Spanish word "tornar," which means "to turn."
Weather experts generally cannot predict a derecho as far in advance as they can other storm systems. Derechos often form along the northern boundary of a hot-air mass, right along or just south of the jet stream, where upper-level winds zip along at high speeds.
In summer, the jet stream atop a sprawling heat dome is sometimes called a ring of fire because of the tendency for explosive thunderstorms to form along the weather front separating hot, humid air to the south and cooler, drier air to the north.
On Friday, a historic, record-setting heat wave covered a sprawling region from the Midwest to the Southeast. In Washington, the mercury climbed to 104 degrees — the hottest June day in the 142 years that records have been kept.
As stifling air bubbled northward, clashing with the weather front draped from near Chicago to just north of Washington, storms erupted. They grew in coverage and intensity as they raced southeast, powered by the roaring upper-level winds and fueled by the record-setting heat and oppressive humidity in their path.
The coverage and availability of this heat energy was vast, sustaining the storms on their 600-mile northwest-to-southeast traverse. The storms continually ingested the hot, humid air and expelled it in violent downdrafts — crashing into the ground at high speeds and spreading out, sometimes accelerating further.
The intensity of the heat wave was a key factor in the destructiveness of this derecho event. It raises the question about the possible role of man-made climate warming from elevated greenhouse concentrations — a question that scientists will surely grapple with in case studies of this rare event.