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Heat bursts not often seen

6/4/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It wasn't quite "fire and brimstone coming down from the skies," but it was a scene eerily reminiscent of the final scene from 1984's "Ghostbusters."

One thing's for sure, Tuesday's heat burst turned night into day -- at least as far as temperatures were concerned. And darkness simply got a little darker with the wall of dust swept up by the 60 mph winds created by the collapsing thunderstorm.

Temperatures at Hays Regional Airport reached 99 degrees at approximately 9:37 p.m. Tuesday, according to Larry Ruthi, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Dodge City. That came after evening temperatures slowly had fallen into the upper 80s.

"It was similar to a mid-afternoon environment," Ruthi said of the spike in temperature when a heat burst occurred.

At a second meteorological site west of Hays, he said, the temperature skyrocketed to 96 degrees, also up from the upper 80s.

At the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center at the south edge of Hays, the chart on the automated temperature recording device spiked, climbing nearly 9 degrees.

An automated system showed temperatures had fallen to 89 degrees at 9:30 p.m., before hitting 94 degrees 30 minutes later.

At the same time, humidity levels plummeted from a high of 47 percent to 28.5 percent just 30 minutes later.

That automated system, however, only takes readings every 30 minutes, so temperatures could have climbed higher.

Near Antonino, winds gusted to 65.8 mph, and temperatures jumped to 96.3 degrees.

The heat burst wasn't confined to the Hays area, but instead covered several counties, including Ness, Rush, Ellis and Russell -- even stretching into Ellsworth and Salina.

Hays had the peak high at 99 degrees and the peak wind of 61 mph. Russell hit 94 degrees and had winds clocked at 58 mph.

And it was all caused by a collapsing thunderstorm, surprisingly, the massive anvil-shaped supercell that passed through Garden City, producing at least one tornado north of Lakin in southwest Kansas.

Ruthi said heat bursts result as upper-level moisture-laden air starts falling through warm air in the mid-level atmosphere.

Initially, the upper-level air serves to cool the mid-level air,

But once all the moisture has evaporated, it stops cooling and instead starts warming as it descends to ground level.

It's possible, Ruthi said, the air can warm as much as 5.5 degrees for every 1,000 feet it falls.

Heat bursts are relatively uncommon but not unheard of.

Ruthi said they can occur in southwest Kansas two to three times a year, but they most often happen in late summer and typically occur between 10 p.m. and midnight or later -- often after people already are in bed.

"They vary in intensity," he said, and the one like Tuesday's was more extensive than most.

It's not something that goes down in the record books, Ruthi said of heat bursts. But one covering such a wide area and with such a dramatic temperature swing is uncommon, perhaps occurring only once every three to five years.