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New CMU study may help forecasters better understand thunderstorm formations in colder climates

Mark Olsen
A woman takes a photo of lightning striking as dark storm clouds roll over Lake Michigan.

Sometimes the clash of thunder and torrents of rain happen where forecasters least expect it.

Thunderstorms usually happen on the warm side of a weather front, said Central Michigan University meteorology professor Jason Keeler. But little research has been conducted on why they can happen on the cold side.

His research suggests the Great Lakes moisture levels could play an important role in creating the conditions for a thunderstorm on the cold side of a weather system.

“This is really not something you would necessarily expect," he said. "It’s maybe a little counter-intuitive that you could have greater instability where it’s cooler simply because there’s a greater moisture content in the air.”

If the new simulations pan out, Keeler said they could help forecasters be more accurate.

"Maybe (forecasters) should take a close look here in Michigan," he said. "Don’t just look at the inland side—or warm side—of that front for potential thunderstorms to develop. And you can actually get some to develop on the cool side as well.

Keeler said he’s got two more years to complete his research. And just like Michigan’s weather, he said his findings could change.

Ben Jodway is an intern, serving as a reporter for WCMU Public Media and the Pioneer in Big Rapids. He has covered Indigenous communities and political extremism in Michigan.