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Powerful storm buries Colorado under nearly 4 feet of snow and spawns tornadoes in central US

A potent storm is unleashing snarling snow, tornadoes and massive hail in the central US Thursday for the second consecutive day.

Tornado-warned thunderstorms are popping up in parts of the Plains and Ohio Valley at the same time heavy snow was bringing parts of Colorado to a standstill.

Nearly 4 feet of snow fell from Wednesday to Thursday afternoon in the mountains west of Denver, and there were multiple reports of over half a foot of snow in the city.

The snow prompted closure of more than 50 miles of I-70 in Colorado and many schools, businesses and government offices in the state. More than 800 flights to or from Denver International Airport were canceled as of Thursday afternoon, according to FlightAware. More than 100,000 customers were without power as of Thursday afternoon, most of them in the Denver area, according to poweroutage.us.

The Colorado State Capitol is covered in snow early Thursday, March 14, 2024 in Denver. - KMGH via AP
The Colorado State Capitol is covered in snow early Thursday, March 14, 2024 in Denver. - KMGH via AP

The same system fired up severe thunderstorms from Oklahoma and Kansas to Illinois Wednesday. Multiple tornadoes were reported in Kansas late Wednesday as storms tore across the state.

At least one “large and extremely dangerous tornado” occurred near Volland, Kansas, Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service.

Nearby severe thunderstorms produced hail the size of softballs and large enough to earn it the social-media moniker “gorilla hail” – an informal term popularized by storm chasers in recent years.

Here’s what to expect through the end of the week.

More than a month’s worth of snow for Denver

Heavy snow will continue over Colorado through Thursday, before snowfall rates start to ease overnight.

Snowfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour hit the Boulder and Denver areas Thursday afternoon and will continue into the overnight hours.

Denver could record the most snow in three years and more than a month’s worth of snow as 12 to 18 inches are possible from the multiday storm. Over 20 inches could pile up in the far western portion of the metro area, close to the Front Range foothills.

Travel is expected to get more difficult Thursday outside the foothills as heavy snow falls through the evening. Travel in the foothills will remain nearly impossible the entire day.

“Don’t travel into the foothills! If you do, be prepared to be stranded for an extended period of time,” the weather service said Thursday.

Snow will slowly taper off in Colorado Friday, leaving the highest peaks buried under up to 4 feet of snow by storm’s end.

Damaging winds, hail and tornadoes possible

Tens of millions of people are at risk for severe thunderstorms on Thursday as the system tracks east and expands its reach across more than 1,000 miles of the US.

Strong thunderstorms Thursday morning affected areas from Missouri through Illinois, and additional damaging storms roared to life Thursday afternoon in the Plains.

An area from Texas to Ohio is under a Level 2 of 5 risk for severe thunderstorms able to produce damaging wind gusts, large hail and tornadoes.

A higher Level 3 of 5 risk for severe thunderstorms will center on parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. The risk for tornadoes will also be highest in this area, but a tornado or two cannot be ruled out in any area where severe thunderstorms develop Thursday.

Hail as big as baseballs could also unload considerable damage in several states. Some of the strongest storms could potentially produce hailstones bigger than a softball or grapefruit.

Parts of Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma are at the greatest risk for incredibly dangerous hailstones, including Springfield, Missouri, and Little Rock, Arkansas. The same storms could also produce tornadoes and will likely be active Thursday night after dark, increasing the danger.

Nighttime tornadoes are twice as likely to be deadly as those occurring during the day, a 2022 study found.

The best way to stay safe during a nocturnal tornado threat is to have multiple ways to receive severe weather warnings. Make sure emergency alerts are enabled on your smartphone. Charge devices ahead of time and set phones or alarms on a loud volume so you’re not caught unaware.

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