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GUEST COLUMN: Derechos and talking about the weather

GUEST COLUMN: Derechos and talking about the weather

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With Air Force One long gone from the Eastern Iowa Airport, Iowans are left with the aftermath of the derecho from Aug. 10. To wrap their minds around the damage, people declared the event an inland hurricane.

The title, though inaccurate, went viral, calling international attention to our region. The derecho offers a chance to consider what talking about the weather can mean for Iowans. These insights stem from an environmental geography class discussion at the University of Northern Iowa.

Do inland hurricanes exist? No. Hurricanes are tropical cyclones, massive storm engines fueled by warm ocean waters. They can last for weeks. Making landfall cuts off that fuel.

Excluding wind speed, hurricanes and derechos share more differences than similarities. Derechos are like a one-minute punk song on repeat: straight, full blast, and fast. They stretch across a landscape for hundreds of miles in a curved bow. Derechos cover a lot of ground in a short time span. There is no derecho season. In Iowa, events happen every 1 to 2 years.

Who invented the derecho concept? A professor at the University of Iowa. In 1888, Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs reported that straight-line wind damage from a July 1877 storm differed from tornado damage. Hinrichs, who also taught world languages, classified it as a derecho, Spanish for “direct” or “straight ahead.” The term stuck in the regional weather profile of the central U.S.

Is nitpicking over terms constructive? No. Distinctions may provide a brief teaching moment, but they are unhelpful to Iowans whose livelihoods were destroyed. Meteorologist and Forbes columnist Marshall Shepherd was right: Names matter very little when the August storm took the lives of three Iowans and one Indianan, with overall damage estimated in the billions. Moreover, the inland hurricane idea aided outsiders in relating the derecho’s devastation to a more familiar phenomenon.

Events like the derecho signal awareness of our complex, chaotic atmosphere. Energy surges through this relatively thin orb of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, water vapor, greenhouse gases, and aerosols. For scale, experts often gauge a storm’s power in terms of nuclear bombs! Severe weather behaves differently through time, from region to region, from derecho to hurricane.

For Iowans, bringing up the weather becomes more than conversation filler. The derecho renews dialogues about local adaptation and resilience to environmental hazards. Deeper knowledge about storms can increase curiosity about severe weather, combat alarm fatigue when tornado sirens sound off, and promote upstream preparation for future severe events.

Thomas Larsen is a a geography instructor at The University of Northern Iowa. This column was column compiled by Larsen and environmental geography students Scott Haydock, Schuyler Hop, Dre Presswood, Casey Shanaberger, Peyton Simmons, Kari Wellman, and Daniel Bennett.

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