Minnesota Sees First December Tornado, Hurricane-Force Winds Reported in Midwest States

Hurricane-strength wind gusts hit the Midwest this week, with tornadoes reported in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin—weather patterns that experts call highly unusual for the season.

The National Weather Service La Crosse confirmed an EF-0 tornado in Minnesota on December 15, making the event the state's first tornado to strike in December. They also confirmed an EF-2 tornado in Wisconsin. Other storm sites are being investigated by the NWS, and possible additional confirmations could be expected later.

At least five people lost their lives as a result of the storms. In Minnesota, a 40' tree fell into a man's house, taking his life. In Kansas, "blinding dust" caused two crashes that killed three people. In Iowa, a semitrailer rolled because of the high winds, which killed the driver.

The storm system developed shortly after several northern states reported temperatures as high as 70 degrees Fahrenheit, almost unheard of as late in the year as it is.

There were 59 reports of hurricane-strength winds just on Wednesday, with some places such as Lamar, Colorado, and Russell, Kansas, reporting winds 100 mph and higher.

"To have this number of damaging wind storms at one time would be unusual anytime of year," said Brian Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley, Nebraska. "But to have this happen in December is really abnormal."

PowerOutage.Us reported over 400,000 homes and businesses in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas were left without electricity Thursday due to the storms.

"I can say with some confidence that this event (the heat and tornadoes) is among the most (if not THE most) anomalous weather event ever on record for the Upper Midwest," Chris Burt, The Weather Company historian, wrote in a Facebook post.

tornado, Midwest, Iowa
A band of strong storms swept across much of the plains states on producing powerful wind gusts and tornadoes. Above, a tornado approaches Interstate 80 near Atlantic, Iowa, as a semi truck rolls eastward on December 15, 2021. Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP

The storm was shifting north of the Great Lakes into Canada on Thursday, with high winds, snow and hazardous conditions continuing in the upper Great Lakes region, the National Weather Service said.

The small community of Hartland, Minnesota, might have been the hardest hit by the state's tornado, with a reported 35 to 40 homes sustaining minor damage while a few businesses were severely damaged, said county Emergency Management Director Rich Hall. Several barns were down and roofs were blown off some sheds, he added.

The winds knocked down trees, tree limbs and nearly 150 power lines in northern and western Michigan's Lower Peninsula. In the western Michigan village of Fruitport, high winds peeled back a portion of Edgewood Elementary School's roof, leading officials to close all district schools Thursday.

There were more than 20 tornado reports Wednesday in the Plains states, scattered through eastern Nebraska and Iowa, based on preliminary reports to the Storm Prediction Center. The day also saw the most reports of hurricane-force wind gusts—75 mph (120 kph) or higher—of any day since 2004, the center said.

The system came on the heels of devastating tornadoes last weekend that cut a path through states including Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people.

On Wednesday, there were at least 59 reports of hurricane-force wind gusts, which exceeded the 53 recorded on Aug. 10, 2020, when a rare derecho wind storm struck Iowa, the Storm Prediction Center said. The destruction on Wednesday, however, was far less severe than what Iowa saw from the 2020 derecho, which caused billions of dollars of damage.

The strong winds also whipped up dust that reduced visibility to zero west of Wakeeney, Kansas, the state Department of Transportation said, and caused at least four semitrailers to blow over. Kansas officials closed Interstate 70 from the Colorado border to Salina, as well as all state highways in nine counties in northwest Kansas.

That dust and smoke from various wildfires in Kansas was carried north by the storm and concentrated over parts of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa that led to a dramatic drop in air quality in those areas late Wednesday and a recommendation from the weather service for people to stay indoors. The smell of smoke from the fires also spawned a glut of calls to already-taxed emergency dispatchers in Omaha and other communities from people reporting the smell of smoke.

The system blew into the Plains from Colorado, sending gale-force winds across a swath from New Mexico to Minnesota, Wisconsin and upper Michigan.

Scientists say extreme weather events and warmer temperatures, much like what's happening, are more likely to occur with human-caused climate change. However, scientifically attributing a specific event like this storm system to global warming requires specific analysis and computer simulations that take time, haven't been done and sometimes show no clear connection.

"I think we also need to stop asking the question of whether or not this event was caused by climate change. All events nowadays are augmented by climate change," said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Victor Gensini. "We need to be asking, 'To what extent did climate change play a role and how likely was this event to occur in the absence of climate change?'"

The unusually warm temperatures on Wednesday were due in part to record-high ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which wouldn't have happened without global warming, said Jeff Masters, a Yale Climate Connections meteorologist who co-founded Weather Underground.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Iowa, storm, tornado, debris
Storms across the U.S. on December 14 caused property damage and downed power lines, leaving many without electricity. Above, a grain trailer sits among the debris of a farm building damaged by strong wind gusts in Jefferson, Iowa, on December 16, 2021. Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP