Richmond Now Under Tornado Watch

New tornado watch until midnight Eastern. It includes Richmond and Petersburg. 

AccuWeather Regional Radar at 6:50pm EDT shows strong thunderstorms over the region. The supercell southeast of Lynchburg has produced very large hail and has been tornado-warned several times. It is moving in the general direction of Richmond.

Something to Check on if Your Home was Damaged by a Tornado

With many areas in recovery mode from the recent tornadoes, I received these safety tips pertaining to fireplaces and chimneys. Turns out they are often damaged but since they aren’t used until the following autumn, the damage can remain hidden until a serious problem occurs.  So, I’m happy to pass these along:

  • Recognize fireplaces and furnaces as major appliances. Floors can become weakened, insulation can become sodden and metal rusts when water soaks a home. Consider replacement of your furnace and fireplace when replacing your kitchen appliances.
  • Be on the safe side. Before using your fireplace, woodstove or furnace following a damaging storm, flood or hurricane, the Chimney Safety of America recommends an inspection by a professional to ensure that your furnace and fireplace have not suffered water damage.
  • Replace gas logs. Fireplaces that are fitted to burn gas logs pose one of the most dangerous problems because small pieces of debris and/or damage to the gas control valve might not be obvious. Avoid the risk of blockage and rapid deterioration of the components by replacing logs frequently.
  • Replace damaged appliances. Any electrical wiring or fans associated with your fireplace or furnace’s operation must also be replaced if they have become waterlogged. Just like your kitchen’s refrigerator and stove, your home heating appliances need to be inspected and potentially replaced, depending on the level of water damage.
  • Hire a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep® or CSIA Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician®. When in doubt, ensure your home and family’s safety by hiring a chimney or dryer exhaust professional. CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps® and CSIA Certified Dryer Exhaust Technicians® have earned the chimney and venting industry’s most respected credential by passing an intensive examination based on fire codes, clearances and standards for the construction and maintenance of chimney and venting systems. This knowledge allows them to expertly diagnose and solve chimney and venting problems.

Kid’s Toy Gives Lesson on Tornado Formation

When I was at Wichita’s Exploration Place recently, I watched children play with one of those large funnels used for charitable donations. I thought would help me illustrate how supercell-related tornadoes develop.

video

We often talk about “circulation” in thunderstorms. All supercell thunderstorms have a rotating updraft of modest rotational speed. While dangerous to an aircraft in flight, it usually doesn’t both things on the ground.

When the diameter of the supercell’s rotation is constricted by storm’s “rear flank downdraft” (as the coins’ rotation is constricted toward the bottom of the funnel) the speed of the rotation increases — just as the coins speed up here.

In the meteorology classroom, we call it “conservation of angular momentum.” You can call it part of the explanation of how major tornadoes form.

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Rare “High Risk” Day

This is a big deal. “High risks” are rare, usually only a day or two each calendar year. I want to break the components for you.

Tornado

A one in three chance of a tornado occurring within 25 miles of any given point within the high risk area with potential for tornadoes of F2 or greater intensity.

Damaging Thunderstorm Winds

Very high numbers here. The hatched area is where gusts of 75 mph or more are forecast. Suffice to say it is a huge area of damaging thunderstorm winds. 

Large Hail

Hatched area is a forecast of 2″ diameter hair or bigger.

 No tornado watches are in effect at present. However, thunderstorms are developing in many areas and they will become stronger, especially this afternoon.

6am Update: Storms Evolving As Predicted

Here is the AccuWeather regional radar for Friday morning at 5:44am and, unfortunately, the storms are evolving just about as forecast. The large supercell near St. Louis has produced large hail across its entire journey across Missouri.

This is exactly as forecast three hours ago:

In fact, compare the actual regional radar (above) to the forecast regional radar (for 8am this morning, the timing is a bit off) pattern. 

In both, you have the large supercell near St. Louis, the training thunderstorms into the Ozarks and the mix of rain and snow back into Kansas. 

I expect the supercell(s) will continue to move east across Illinois within about 70 miles either side of Interstate 70 this morning and continue to produce large hail.  

At 3pm CST, there will be numerous thunderstorms throughout the Midwest and South, some of which will be producing large hail, damaging thunderstorm winds, and tornadoes.

And, as I was finishing up this posting, the NWS extended the severe thunderstorm watch across Illinois until 11am (below):

Severe Weather Setting Up

The death toll from the mid-week tornado outbreak reached 14 today as a Harveyville, Kansas, man succumbed to his injuries suffered Tuesday night. 

Meteorologists are monitoring two upcoming rounds of thunderstorms over the next 36 hours. The first will start late tonight a 15% chance of hail an 1″ or larger the greatest threat:

Tomorrow still looks like a major tornado and damaging thunderstorm wind day. AccuWeather is giving this weather system extra coverage, updated Thursday evening.. 

The hatched areas are where tornadoes ≥ F-2 and/or thunderstorm winds of 75 mph or greater are expected.  

Here is the experimental forecast radar for 9pm Central time Friday evening:

Keep in eye on the weather if you live in these areas!

Destructive Tornado and Severe Weather Event Possible

This is the probabilistic tornado and severe thunderstorm (latter defined as hail ≥ 1″ in diameter and/or winds ≥ 58 mph) outlook valid from 6am Friday until 6am Saturday as forecast by the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. 

Two things ratchet up my concern when tornadoes and severe storms are contemplated: 

  • Overnight
  • Out of Season

While very early March is technically “in season,” a number of these areas haven’t had any severe weather in 2012. Plus, the dynamics (jet stream strength, etc.) of this event may keep it going during the overnight hours with fast-moving (potentially less “lead time”) storms. 

Breaking it down: the hatched area (in this case) means tornadoes ≥F-2 intensity and/or thunderstorm-generated winds ≥ 75 mph. This far (more than 24 hours) out, those are very high probabilities (45%), as well.  

So, if you live in these areas, I urge you to make sure you to conduct the following reviews:

AccuWeather has more on this subject. 

Considering we just lost twelve precious lives in the severe weather event that ended last night, please prepare if you live in these regions.  

CNN: Ten Fatalities

Various news sources are CNN is reporting three ten fatalities so far in this tornado outbreak as of 11am Central time. 

Drew Pelz was nice enough to note our posting of the Reno County radar at 6:40 yesterday evening led to this photo of the tornado five minutes later. That storm did minor damage.

The NWS’s Storm Prediction Center’s “significant” (≥F2) tornado index continues above the threshold value of 2, especially over Tennessee. Keep a close eye on the weather in the region if thunderstorms approach.

 

UPDATE: 10:50am. Via KSDK (NBC, St. Louis) Twitter feed, here is an image of the damaging in Harrisburg, IL

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More Tornadoes Today

Above is what is left of my friend (and former WeatherData meteorologist) Rodney Price’s parents’ garage on the south side of Harveyville, KS. His folks are OK but there were critical injuries in an adjacent home.

We have reports of major damage in Branson, MO and Harrisburg, IL.  

Thunderstorms are now moving into the easternmost tornado watch which is in effect for parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, including Nashville.  

As of 6:11am, tornado warnings are in effect for the areas in red polygons, severe thunderstorm warnings in the amber polygons. The tornado watch is yellow on this map.

Here is the “significant tornado index” (≥F2) as of 5am CST:

If other factors are favorable, powerful tornadoes may occur in the areas with index values of 2 or higher. Needless to say, please monitor the weather in these areas as thunderstorms approach.

I’ll have an update a mid-morning.  

ADDITION at 6:45am: Via Jim Sellars on Facebook, here is the debris over Branson, MO on the new dual polarization radar. We believe we will be able to better detect tornadoes at night with these new radars. I’ve circled the debris.

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Worst Science Story of the Week

Worst Headline: “Tornado Forecasting Eludes Weather Scientists” in my hometown paper, The Wichita Eagle. 

The headline was attached to the worst story science story of the week written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. The story was printed in many newspapers across the United States, including the Tulsa World, Miami Herald, and others. 

Let me state — again — on this blog how wrong this story is: Of the 551 people killed by tornadoes in 2011, more than 99% were located in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning at the time the storm arrived! 

Mr. Borenstein cites Joplin. Here is the forecast of the Joplin tornado in the form of the tornado watch:

The watch was issued at 1:30pm, 4 hours and 11 minutes before the tornado reached Joplin! The watch (a forecast) further says there is a “high” probability of tornadoes and a “moderate” probability of a tornado of F-2 intensity or greater.

Did things go wrong later that afternoon in Joplin? Yes. Are there still further improvements to be made to the warning system? Yes, to that, too. The warning system is hardly perfect. But, to trash the science that got the major tornadoes right 99% of the time is ridiculous. This type of ignorant reporting ( ”Tornado Forecasting Eludes Weather Scientists”) does nothing but discourage people from taking warnings seriously — and that is dangerous

Because of stories defending the protagonist in Fakegate, there were many worthy contenders. Still, I hereby nominate Mr. Borenstein for the Dianne Sawyer Award for inaccurate reporting about weather and storms. 

Why Meteorologists are Struggling With Tornadoes

When tornado warnings were created in the 1950′s, for all we meteorologists knew, there was one type of tornado. Now, we know there are at least five. In order, with the worst on top, here they are

  • Supercell
  • Squall line (aka, QLCS)
  • Tropical storm-related
  • Landspout
  • Gustnado

All of these are (relatively) narrow vertical columns of wind so they meet the definition of “tornado.” 

But, we know — to 100% certainty — that a gustnado lasts tens of seconds, is difficult for meteorologists to detect, and that it will never do anything like Joplin-style damage. 

So, the National Weather Service is attempting to address this with the experiment I wrote about last week that will conducted, starting April 1, at their St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield (MO), Topeka, and Wichita offices. They create three-tiered tornado warnings and allow those offices to add “a tornado is possible” to severe thunderstorm warnings. As I comment in the posting, I believe this experiment is misguided.

That said, there is a problem here illustrated by the situation in Kansas Tuesday. 

The radar image below indicate two areas of swirling air (arrows). there were a number of these late Tuesday afternoon.

Radar at 3:39pm Tuesday. Arrows indicate swirling air in the storms.

The photo below was passed around on Facebook a number of times and I’m not sure who the photographer was (email me if it is you and I’ll happily credit you). It shows a funnel cloud that, I believe, was taken over northern Kansas with one of these swirls. 

As far as I know this funnel never touched down nor did any of the other swirls. Yet, you can clearly see a funnel and — sometimes — these do touch down and cause minor damage. Serious injuries are very rare — the percent of tornado fatalities attributed to these types of tornadoes is well less than 1%.

If it touches down, the eyewitnesses will say, accurately, “there was a tornado!” and will expect a warning. 

So, what do we do? Sound the sirens? Interrupt the TV programs and radio?

While I believe there are better ways to accomplish this than multi-tiered warnings, there is a genuine problem the NWS is attempting to address.

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"Error on the Side of ‘Safety’"

Note: In view of the National Weather Service’s decision to experiment with tiered tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in Missouri and Kansas beginning April 1, the concerns raised in this posting become more relevant than when it was first published on February 4. I’ve added additional information in maroon type and elevated it to the top of the blog for today. If you are not aware of the NWS’s plan (they still have not made a public announcement) see the two postings bellow.

 

Last week, I criticized journalism is general, and ABC News in particular, about lazy journalism when it comes to tornadoes. I wrote, pertaining to their inaccurate reporting there was “no warning” of the Alabama pre-dawn tornadoes,

This seems to confirm my suspicion that there is a key on journalists’ word processors that says “there was no warning” and they simply press that key every time they have to do a story about storms.

There seems to be another group that suffers from either lack of knowledge about the rapid progress we have made in the field of storm warnings, inertia, or timidity: Emergency managers.

As I have been gathering data from around the nation for the purpose of reviewing last year’s tornado season, it seems emergency managers have a mantra:

Nick Crossley, director of emergency management and homeland security for Johnson County, said the warnings on Saturday night were necessary throughout the entire county.
“We erred on the side of caution,” Crossley said. “It’s much better to sound the sirens and warn people than not to sound the sirens.”

Crossley was responding to criticism about sounding the sirens — twice in one evening — in areas that were never under a warning.

Or, take a look at this video from KMOV-TV, St. Louis, after I criticized St. Louis County for sounding sirens in areas more than 25 miles (with the tornado moving away) from the tornado. They have the capability to sound sirens selectively (i.e., NWS polygons) if they wish to do so.

He said, “I’d rather be safe than sorry” and that we “never know” which way a storm is moving.

So, how bad was the overwarning he was defending?

May 25, 2012, St. Louis.

Above are two images I took during the storm. At left is the funnel cloud for which the warning was issued. At the bottom of the photo is the Mississippi River separating Missouri from Illinois and, at lower left, the south leg of the Gateway Arch.

At right is a photo of the local television storm coverage. “STL” is downtown St. Louis where my hotel room was located. The orange arrow denotes the “hook” echo which shows the tornado’s location and what prompted me to leave my room and go to a location in the hotel to take a photo of the funnel (note: it was past me, I was safe) as it moved northeast. There are no other storms to the west yet the sirens are going off as far away as Pacific, MO (purple arrow). 

Below is a Google Map image showing the location of the funnel (F) moving northeast (thick red arrow). The orange arrow from the above image is carried over. Pacific, MO is located with the purple arrow as above. Pacific is 35 miles behind the tornado threat which is moving northeast, away from Pacific!

I’m not talking about a mile or two safety buffer, I’m talking about tens of miles! St. Louis County has the technological capability to sound the sirens only in areas actually threatened but they choose not to use it. 

Now, take a look at this story from WFIE-TV in Indiana from January 18th (updated Jan. 25th) that came to my attention yesterday February 3:

The National Weather Service allows each county to decide which sirens to set off during a storm. 
14 News found some Tri-State counties are now choosing this option, while others say their policies won’t change.
40 sirens sounded Tuesday morning, getting attention all across Vanderburgh County for a warning that was only issued for the northern section.
Meteorologists clarified on Twitter that the warning did not include Evansville, even though the sirens were going off.
“Our policy is always to sound them off through the whole county,” said Vanderburgh County EMA director Sherman Greer.
Greer says it’s a policy that errs on the side of safety. [emphasis mine]
“Meteorology and the weather and everything is not an exact science,” Greer pointed out.
That is why he’s not comfortable with switching to that new option, from the National Weather Service, that would allow him to set off only those sirens located in the affected part of the county.
“If something strays a little bit further than that area, then we’ve got a problem.”
“I think it’s a good idea. I’m not convinced yet that they are quite as precise as we would like to see it,” said Henderson EMA Director Larry Koerber.
Across the river in Henderson, Koerber also fires all 32 of his sirens, no matter where the storm is in the county.
“We don’t want to miss something and say ‘Well,if the path is there in the southern part of the county’ and sure enough it makes a left turn and winds up in the middle of Henderson,” Koerber says.

We keep hearing from emergency managers; and there are many more examples I can cite:

Error on the side of safety.
Activating sirens over and over and over in areas where there is no threat (deliberately sounding them in Evansville even though the tornado warning did not include Evansville). Is that really erring on the side of safety?

Or, is it really erring on the side of protecting the emergency manager from second guessing (i.e., fear of criticism if a tornado occurs without the sirens going off)?

There is also the complementary comment that meteorologists “don’t know” where the tornadoes are and/or don’t know where they are going to go. This was true 40 years ago during the early years of trying to warn people of tornadoes. We weren’t very good at it then. “Better safe than sorry” made sense in the 60′s and 70′s and, in some areas with poor radar coverage, even the 80′s.
Today: This deliberate and geographically exaggerated overwarning makes no sense in an era of Doppler and Dual-Polarization radars, debris balls, GPS storm reports, etc., etc. As I previously reported on the blog, 99+% of the tornado fatalities in 2011 occurred in areas that were under both a tornado watch and tornado warning before the fatality occurred. Meteorology does know where the storms are going to be.

So, here is the problem:  The evidence is rapidly accumulating that “erring on the side of safety” is doing nothing but training people to ignore warning sirens. 

I mentioned last week that I’m working on a project that pertains to last year’s tornadoes and I originally wanted to get into this subject when I was farther along. But, the news report from Evansville tweaked my conscience.
It is long past time to stop warning areas tens of miles away from the tornado threat. The polygon warnings, while not perfect, build in enough margin of safety to allow sirens to be sounded in and along the polygon. 
Heck, build in a 1-2 mile buffer (easy to do with today’s technology). But stop sounding sirens in areas tens of miles away from any threat!

Between the media inaccurately yet constantly telling people how bad the warnings are and emergency managers sounding the sirens 20 miles behind the tornado it is almost a wonder that anyone pays attention. But, with good television and radio reporting, many are able to intelligently respond and save their lives in spite of these handicaps. But, there is no reason for an environment where making the correct decision has to be so hard.

Based on the preliminary research I have done pertaining to 2011, there is no question that complacency cost lives. I’ll have more when I am finished with the work.

There is still time in many jurisdictions to implement a new policy in time for the 2012 tornado season. Great started, please. Otherwise, I fear we are going to more lose precious lives to complacency.

ADDITION Saturday 11am:  I’ve received some surprising (at least to me) feedback about this post. Apparently, a number of readers do not know that I have written a book documenting how accurate storm warnings have become. For those interested, it is Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.  Warnings is a non-technical read that explains how courageous scientists built the system that managed the amazing feat of getting both a watch and warning in place in advance of 99% of the fatalities in 2011′s record tornado season.

While there is still work to be done, there is no question that meteorology has advanced storm warnings to where they should be accorded the level of respect that medical diagnosis receive.

If you doubt that is the case, please read the book (OK with me if you go to the library or buy the less expensive ebook version!) before 2012′s tornado and hurricane seasons. Doing so might save your life!

Addition (Feb. 18): I learned last week that Johnson County, Iowa became the fourth jurisdiction since Joplin to announce that it will start sounding sirens for severe thunderstorm warnings, including 1″ hail, which is why this posting is so important. The key to saving lives is getting people to take action and they will only do so if they feel comfortable with their decision. 

Combined with the National Weather Service’s plan to complicate the tornado warnings and give their local offices the option of adding the sentence, “A tornado is possible.” to severe thunderstorm warnings, we are setting ourselves for confusion, delays seeking shelter, and — potentially — the loss of additional lives. 

Ka-BOOM!

That is the sound of the National Weather Service blowing up the severe thunderstorm and tornado warning system that has served us so very well for so many years. Starting April 1, in the geographic areas served by the National Weather Service offices in Kansas City, Wichita, Springfield (MO), Dodge City, Topeka and Goodland (KS), there will be multi-tiered severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings.

The changes which I will describe below spring from the high death toll from U.S. tornadoes in general, and the Joplin tornado in particular, in 2011. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they will make the issues worse and will likely cost lives due to confusion.

The New Severe Thunderstorm Warnings

The NWS is going to put additional emphasis on hail size and wind speed, which is fine. While imperfect, the science exists to do this.

Unfortunately, they are going to allow a sentence to be added to severe thunderstorm warnings that states, “A tornado is possible.” What do you or a school principal do with that? Go halfway down the basement stairs?

Given the political pressure the National Weather Service seems to be under at the moment, I forecast that many severe thunderstorm warnings will contain that unfortunate sentence and the “overwarning” problem, which we know causes complacency, will get measurably worse.

The New Tornado Warnings

This is where it really gets bad. There will be, starting April 1, three types of tornado warnings:

  • The “ordinary” tornado warning
  • A tornado warning declaring a “particularly dangerous situation”
  • A “tornado emergency” for “catastrophic” damage.

The first problem is that the science does not exist to do this! We have no skill at short-term tornado strength forecasting. None.

Second, who is going to be able to keep straight whether a “tornado emergency” is better or worse than a “particularly dangerous situation”?

Third, even if #1 and #2 were not issues, what do you want the public to do differently?! Since we meteorologists want everyone to take shelter during a tornado warning, the two “tornado warnings on steroids” are superfluous.

Here is the National Weather Service’s hypothetical example based around the Joplin storm:

* AT 514 PM CDT…A TORNADO EMERGENCY FOR THE CITY OF JOPLIN.   A CONFIRMED LARGE AND DESTRUCTIVE TORNADO WAS LOCATED NEAR   BAXTER SPRINGS MOVING NORTHEAST AT 40 MPH.

THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION.

Fourth, they are going to elevate any accompanying wind and/or hail threat. To use the NWS’s example, which is built around the Joplin tornado,

HAZARD…DEADLY TORNADO AND BASEBALL SIZE HAIL

The problem with this is that literally dozens of devices are now parsing these messages. During the Joplin tornado, two of my friends were trapped in the path of the storm because a message about hail (the least of their problems) overwrote a text message about the tornado.

What does a person do when hail is coming? Run outside and put the car in the garage….the last thing we want them to do when a violent tornado is approaching.

If the National Weather Service believes an F-5 tornado is approaching they should be urging people to take shelter and forget about the hail, lightning and other hazards.

Fifth, the chance of getting the people of Kansas, western Missouri, and adjacent areas educated by April 1 is extremely low. It has taken forty years to get the “watch” and “warning” concept to where they have widespread acceptance. I doubt this can be done in forty days.

This isn’t just my opinion. Dr. Laura Myers, a social scientist at Mississippi State University, wrote yesterday,

My conclusion: It would seem that more detail and more warning levels would help, but I think it just leads to confusion and [warning] fatigue.

When a tornado is bearing down, people need to act and act quickly. Having to think through warning types is counterproductive.

This experiment has the potential, through confusion, to undo a half-century of great progress in tornado warnings.  I urge the National Weather Service to reconsider and call the experiment off.

 

Because of the importance of this issue, I’m going to leave this on the top of the blog through Friday evening.

Very Heavy Snow Now in Nebraska and Kansas

As expected, the heaviest snows (rates of 1-2″ per hour) have shifted into northern Kansas and southern Nebraska. The Mayor of Lincoln has declared a state of emergency effective at 6am Saturday.

Click to enlarge. AccuWeather regional weather. 

In Texas, a damaging tornado has occurred in the Bryan-College Station area. Don’t have details as yet.

1:40pm Friday Storm Update

A tornado watch has been issued for north central Texas and parts of southern Oklahoma until 8pm.

Strong thunderstorms are now developing SSE of Wichita Falls.

As much as 36″ of snow have fallen in some of the suburbs west of Denver with about a foot at the Denver Airport.

The forecasts below are the probabilities  of 2″ or more of snow accumulating starting at 6pm this (Friday) evening through 6pm Sunday evening.

And, below, is the probability of 8″ or more accumulating during that period. It does not include snow that has already fallen.

Please take these forecasts into consideration when planning your travel!