What you need to know about severe thunderstorms

They play second fiddle to tornado warnings, but should be taken seriously
Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 4:33 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2022 at 6:53 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Severe thunderstorms don’t get enough respect. A tornado warning gets everyone’s attention, but be honest: When a severe thunderstorm warning is issued, do you downplay it in your mind since it’s not a tornado?

On a calm, clear day, the intensity of a spring thunderstorm can feel like it’s months away. But the best time to learn and prepare is before the storm hits.

As temperatures warm this spring, thunderstorms become more likely. Fueled by heat and moisture, a thunderstorm is nature’s way of cooling off. But when that happens, tremendous energy can be released. That comes in the form of lightning, wind, rain and hail.

But a thunderstorm is only called “severe” by the National Weather Service when it has large hail or winds above 58 mph.

Lightning is not in the NWS classification. That’s where we at NBC12 come in. We have lightning data that we show on TV, plus the NBC12 weather app has both lightning data, and you can set it to alert you when lightning is near you. Although not part of the official “severe thunderstorm” criteria, lightning can knock out power, cause injury or death, and even start a fire.

For us in Central Virginia, it’s almost always straight-line winds from thunderstorms that cause damage. At 60 mph, trees can be knocked over, and some mobile homes can be damaged, power lines can be taken down.

And although a “severe thunderstorm” doesn’t sound as exciting as a tornado—we get more damage every year from straight-line thunderstorm winds versus the swirling winds of a tornado.

The most extreme example of this was the summer of 2012.

Ten years ago, the word “Derecho” entered our lexicon and taught people from the midwest to the Mid-Atlantic that severe thunderstorms were no joke and could be just as damaging as tornadoes.

Late on the evening of June 29, 2012, a line of severe storms crossed Central Virginia with...
Late on the evening of June 29, 2012, a line of severe storms crossed Central Virginia with destructive wind gusts, knocking out power to millions.(WWBT)

The unbroken line of storms killed 22 people, caused millions in damage, and took power out for some areas.

Click here to read our Derecho story from 2020

When it comes to tornadoes, most are weak and short-lived. But we often get severe thunderstorms that can hold together for 50 miles.

So take any severe thunderstorm warning seriously. Often, people get confused between a Severe Thunderstorm WATCH and a WARNING. This graphic from Meteorologist Brad Panovich in Charlotte is a great visual to help you understand that a “WARNING” is more severe. A “WATCH” comes first.

When a warning is issued, take shelter immediately.

Stay safe, and have a great season!

Get the NBC12 First Alert Weather App, here.

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