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Local View: A derecho by another name would blow as hard

From the column: "The intention here is not to minimize the seriousness of straight-line windstorms but to put them into perspective. They are not unprecedented, as is often suggested in the news media."

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Trees in Hartley Park were knocked down by a windstorm in July 2016.
News Tribune file photo
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The mainstream media are living up to their reputations. There was a report of a line of high winds — labeled a “derecho” — accompanying the movement of a warm front northward over the Midwest on Monday afternoon, June 13.

Peak gusts reached 98 mph in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and 84 mph at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, according to the Fox cable network. As the system swung into Indiana and Ohio, winds toppled power lines and trees and blew over a semi-truck and trailer. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported.

The intention here is not to minimize the seriousness of straight-line windstorms but to put them into perspective. They are not unprecedented, as is often suggested in the news media.

The weather experts at the National Weather Service have changed common weather-related nomenclature to suit their various purposes, particularly as it applies to major tropical storms. The changeover with hurricanes happened over the course of the past several decades but has slipped by with little public notice.

The weather establishment was never satisfied with naming only summer hurricanes, first with female and, more recently, with male names. The weather service began assigning names to Atlantic hurricanes in 1953. More recently, it adopted the practice of giving alphabetized names to major North American winter storms, heretofore having reported them simply as anonymous snowstorms and blizzards by date and place of occurrence.

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A recent innovation by the National Weather Service is to label thunderstorms accompanied by strong straight-line winds that create damage over several hundred miles as derechos, borrowing from the Spanish language a word that translates into English as “straight ahead” or “correct.” Derecho winds blow in a forward direction outward from the leading edge of a grouping of thunderstorms to form a “bow echo,” as observed by weather radar.

A University of Iowa professor coined the term "derecho” in 1888 to apply to complex, large-scale thunderstorms with associated straight-line winds, after several such storms destroyed crops in the state. Subsequently, the technical term was generally ignored by the outside world, and the word “derecho” temporarily lost usage in English.

There is little historical mention of other straight-line windstorms before 1888. But I'd assume some of them could have been classified (or not) as derechos — such as the broad area of winds that drove both the Great Chicago Fire and Peshtigo, Wisconsin’s "Unknown Fire.” Both horrendous wildfires occurred simultaneously on the evening of Oct. 8, 1871. The wind event itself was poorly understood at the time.

In 1981, straight-line winds in the form of a violent, local microburst, officially determined by the NWS not to be a tornado, destroyed a home in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, belonging to my brother’s family and five other nearby residences.

Close friends, while on a canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, encountered a terrifying storm with straight-line winds that flattened thousands of acres of surrounding forest in July 1999. They were lucky to survive.

More recently, derechos have caused extensive damage across portions of the United States, primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. In late June 2012, the “Ohio Valley/Middle Atlantic derecho,” as it came to be called, formed near the Iowa-Illinois border, crossed over Indiana and Ohio, and raced across the Appalachians into the Middle Atlantic States, inflicting heavy damage in and around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It was this storm that finally brought the existence of large-scale straight-line windstorms, or derechos, to the attention of the media and nation.

But now, Fox News enters the scene in 2022, trumpeting what it likes to categorize as "weird-weather" events. Today's derecho, a word no one in the public was very much familiar with before 2012, was reinserted into the popular vernacular, adding weight and recognition to weather occurrences once called destructive "straight-line winds.”

More than 1,200 lives were lost in the 1871 Peshtigo fire, and nearly 300 perished in the Chicago blaze the same evening. They remain among the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, aided and abetted by an unrelenting southwest wind.

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But 1871 was a long time ago, and the storm arrived on the scene well before the media’s recently acquired awareness of derechos. Seemingly, journalism has yet to realize storms of a similar nature have reared their heads, very possibly at least 150 years ago and well before today’s straight-line windstorms were called “derechos.”

But there was no urgency within the news media to promote a climate-change narrative in 1871. SUVs were nowhere to be seen on Chicago’s South Side, near Mrs. O’Leary’s cowshed or anywhere else.

William D. Balgord has a Ph.D. in geochemistry and is head of Environmental and Resources Technology in Middleton, Wis. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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William Balgord (Submitted photo)

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