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Spring into summer: Unseasonable heat helps pave way for violent weather

Spring is just beginning, but in many parts of the country it already feels like summer. As a storm moves into especially warm humid air in the center of the country, Texas is under the gun for violent storms.

By Staff writer / March 19, 2012

The sun rises and cuts through the fog Monday over the marsh at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Tuesday marks the first day of spring.

Steve Jessmore/The Sun News Photo/AP

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The Spring equinox arrives at 1:14 a.m. EDT Tuesday. But for much of the country, 2012 appears to have brought not just a leap day in February, but a leap season in March, with temperatures this month in many parts of the country hitting summertime highs.

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With a major storm system moving through the central US, the conditions for violent weather, including tornadoes, are in place.

The potential for the most violent weather, including summer-like “super cell” thunderstorms and tornadoes, is centered in Texas, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. But a tongue-like swath stretching from the Texas Gulf through northwestern North Dakota also faces an elevated risk of tornadoes over the next 24 hours. The possibility of severe thunderstorms spans much of the eastern US.

On Sunday, the storm system triggered severe thunderstorms over the Great Plains, with reports of tornadoes touching down in five communities sprinkled among southern South Dakota, western Nebraska, and western Oklahoma.

The system, centered over the Montana-North Dakota border, is drawing energy from unusually warm, unusually moist air in the central US, explains Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for the Weather Underground, a web-based weather forecast and analysis service.

On Sunday, Winner, S.D., hit 94 degrees, he notes, the earliest date the Northern Plains has posted a 90-degree day. International Falls, Minn., enjoyed a balmy 79 degrees – a record for the day. St. Patrick's Day weekend came to Houghton, Mich., with back-to-back 76-degree days – 44 degrees above normal.

“I've always said I could do without March in Michigan. I'm finally getting my wish. Now I'm not so sure it was a good request,” says Dr. Masters, who is based in Ann Arbor.

On Sunday, Boston posted a high of 74, 28 degrees above normal for the day. And Chicago has been experiencing a mini-heat wave, with five consecutive days above 80 degrees.

Hearkening back to the late 1800s, when the nation first started recording weather information, “I don't think we've seen such a moist and warm air mass in March over the center of the US,” Dr. Masters says. He points out that sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are among the five warmest on record for the month. Those record moisture levels extend as far north as Minnesota, he notes.

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