Violent and potentially deadly, microbursts give tornadoes a run for their money. These little-known weather outbursts can be as destructive as a tornado and should be taken just as seriously. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), unyielding microbursts can cause miles of damage including uprooting trees, leveling fences, and destroying power lines and buildings.
Anatomy of Microbursts
A microburst is an intense downdraft of air that can produce violent, straight-line winds of more than 100 mph. In extreme cases, wind speeds can reach as high as 150 mph. As a column of air shoots from the thunderstorm base and hits the ground at high speeds, it fans out resulting in powerful winds. While wind force is similar to tornadoes, it does not possess the circular motion of a tornado. Microbursts are normally less than 3 miles across, with lifespans ranging from a couple of seconds to several devastating minutes.
Weather studies have shown that microbursts typically occur in the High Plains and western U.S. where there is a prevalence of unstable, low level, dry environments. Oklahoma is ripe territory for microbursts with our flat landscape and dry conditions.
The forceful wind shear of a microburst can also be a danger to aircraft. As reported by the Langley Research Center, wind shear poses the greatest danger to aircraft during takeoff and landing, when the plane is close to the ground and has little time or room to maneuver. This fateful, weather phenomenon resulted in the crash of Delta Air Lines Flight 191 in Dallas, Texas on August 2, 1985. Fortunately, since the Delta crash, airplane safety standards have increased to better prepare for and withstand microburst wind shear.
So, while tornadoes get all the press, microbursts deserve their fair share of respect. High winds can be extremely destructive and precautions should always be taken during a microburst event. If a microburst is possible, take shelter immediately. As with all weather hazards, the better educated you are the safer you will be.
*For more information on aviation wind shear: https://www.faasafety.gov/files/gslac/library/documents/2011/Aug/56407/FAA%20P-8740-40%20WindShear%5Bhi-res%5D%20branded.pdf