What's a derecho?

A storm's on its way!

image of an ominous bow-arc storm over Brooklyn, NY.

The bow-arc of a derecho overtakes Brooklyn, NY in June 2012. Credit: Orangeadnan

On the evening of June 29th, 2012, a dark bow-shaped cloud raced toward Fort Wayne, Indiana. With that ominous cloud came powerful winds reaching 91 miles per hour. The storm traveled rapidly. It made it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean by the next morning, leaving a massive trail of destruction in its wake.

Looking at the pictures of areas affected by this storm, you might think that a hurricane or a tornado was responsible. But this was a different kind of storm altogether—it was a derecho.

Derechos are fast-moving bands of thunderstorms with destructive winds.

The winds can be as strong as those found in hurricanes or even tornadoes! Unlike hurricanes and tornados, these winds follow straight lines (in fact, derecho means straight in Spanish).

How do these strong winds form? It all has to do with something called a downburst. When the wet air in a thunderstorm meets the drier air surrounding it, the water in the air evaporates. When water evaporates, it cools the air around it. Since the cool air is denser, it rapidly sinks to the ground and creates strong winds.

schematic drawing of a downburst

A downburst. Credit: National Weather Service.

The downburst can actually suck more dry air into the storm, making even stronger downbursts or clusters of downbursts. Derechos occur when the right conditions for downbursts occur over a wide area.

For a storm to be classified as a derecho, the whole area of the storm must have winds of at least 58 miles per hour and it must produce a swath of damage that is at least 240 miles long. That’s a huge storm!

As the storm grows in size, it forms what are known as bow echoes—large bow-shaped packs of thunderstorms that race forward in one direction. These bow echoes form because the downbursts are stronger in the center of the storm. Stronger downbursts mean faster winds. The faster winds race ahead of the storm, creating a bow. They are impressive to see both on the ground and from the sky.

Derechos are most common in the Midwestern United States but are still fairly rare. You might see a derecho about once a year there. They can occasionally be found all the way up into the Northeast.

The best thing to do in the event of a derecho is to go someplace safe and protected—high winds and falling trees can be quite dangerous!

Satellites and derechos

Weather satellites can view derechos from space and help communities predict when they might form. Two new groups of satellites, named GOES-R and JPSS, will be able to take even more detailed pictures of these storms and make even better predictions than current satellites.

satellite video of a derecho

This video of the June 2012 derecho was created using images from a weather satellite named GOES-13. GOES-13 will soon be replaced by an even more advanced set of satellites, named the GOES-R series. Credit: NASA/GOES Program.

satellite video of a derecho

This animation from GOES-13 shows the June 2012 derecho. The red crosses are lightning strikes that occurred during the storm. Credit: GOES-R Proving Ground.

Before and after satellite image of Washington, DC area at night.

Slide the bar to see the areas where power was lost as a result of the June 2012 derecho storm. These nighttime images were taken before and after the storm by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite (SNPP). SNPP is the first satellite launched as part of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Credit: NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.