Thursday, July 7, 2011

2011 Tornadoes: Another Revisiting

Welcome everyone! We all know that it has been an absolutely unforgiving and unrelenting year for tornadoes and extreme weather in general. One could spend weeks retelling and accounting it all, from the unprecedented onslaught of tornadoes in April, to the record floods along the Mississippi River and here in the Northeast in May, and back to tornadoes again in May and June. Extreme heat and drought have even made their presence known across a large expanse of the country in the Plains and parts of the Southwest. As promised though, one more time, we revisit the realm of powerful and deadly tornadoes.

The severe weather had seemed to be showing some mercy during the month of May. That of course came to a screeching halt on May 22, when an EF5 tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri killing over 150 people. But the tornadoes would not stop there that week. Just two days later, the same storm system would spark yet another outbreak of destructive twisters across the nation's heartland in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Goldsby, Oklahoma would catch particular attention on the afternoon of May 24, 2011 as an EF3 tornado tore through parts of the town. Houses were wiped clean off of their foundations, leaving little more than a concrete slab behind. The twister itself was captured on video by KFOR's Chopper 4 as it tore across the countryside. The pilot even briefly set the chopper down near a demolished house to check on the survivors stepping out from their storm cellar. Despite the destruction seen across the town, no one was killed by this tornado.

Still, the picutres speak for themselves...

Above is an SRV (Storm Relative Velocity) radar image out of Norman, Oklahoma from the evening of May 24, 2011. The image shows wind speed and direction across the radar's field of view. Red colors note winds blowing away from the radar, while green colors denote winds that are blowing toward the radar. The circled area shows what is called a "couplet" and indicates an area where the winds within a storm are rotating and where a tornado may possibly be located. This particular image shows a strong tornado rolling through the western suburbs of Oklahoma City. Tornadoes are not usually this easy to spot on radar.

We here in the Northeast weren't spared from this year's tornado rampage. A strong cold front barreling across upstate New York and western New England brought the severe weather here to our neck of the woods, getting the month of June off to a destructive start. Shortly after noon on June 1, 2011 showers and strong thunderstorms began to develop in an unseasonably hot and humid air mass. Parts of Saratoga, Washington, and Rensselaer Counties in NY were bombarded with torrential downpours and enormous hail. The storms continued east into southern Vermont and western Massachusetts, dropping hail over 3" in diameter in some areas. The greater Albany area dodged a thunderstorm that just nicked the south side of the city, but this particular storm would make a name for itself before the day was over.

The cold front continued into central New England, taking the storms with it. However, on this day, central Massachusetts, southern Vermont, and southern New Hampshire was a simmering pressure cooker just waiting to pop. High heat and humidity coupled with favorable wind shear and a strong trigger along the cold front provided more than enough fuel to support strong, rotating thunderstorms. For as strong as the initial storms had been in eastern New York, they were only precursors to some absolutely explosive storms that would fire in central New England. By about 4:00 PM that afternoon, rotating supercell thunderstorms were exploding to life as they rolled downslope of the Bekshires. Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings were alreay being issued, including one tornado warning that was issued around the Brattleboro/Keene area of VT and NH. Also around this time, the same cell that just missed Albany earlier in the day had now grown into a full-fledged supercell just to the west of Springfield, Massachusetts. The storm continued to strengthen as it began to bear down on the city. The greater Springfield area was placed under a tornado warning around 4:30 PM, and tower cameras in the city were about to catch video that would soon go viral in the coming hours. A powerful tornado swept in across the Connecticut River, plowing right into the city of Springfield. The twister damaged homes and businesses, destroyed countless vehicles, and even flipped a tractor trailer right in the middle of the evening rush hour. The tornado, later determined to be an EF3, was responsible for 3 deaths in the greater Springfield area.

Here is a shot taken from a tower camera in Springfield, MA as the tornado crossed the Connecticut River into the city.

One of many streets with demolished buildings following the tornado.

Another view of the tornado as it tore across the city of Springfield. The twister would continue as far east as Sturbridge, MA destroying several homes in the process.

It's been said time after time this year, but I'll say it one more time. All of these accounts of tornadoes serve as reminders of what an intensely active year it has been. Tornado activity has trailed off in recent weeks, and statistically we are beginning to head into the quieter time of the year. The year of extremes has survived in other ways, however. Record heat, more flooding in the northern Plains, and measurable snow over Colorado as late as the beginning of June keep giving up things to talk about, and keep weather in the news headlines. Now a month into hurricane season, we've had only one named storm in the Atlantic. Will this year of extremes expand its influence into a record year of hurricanes? Only time will tell.

Until next time!

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