At Long Last: Birthday Tornadoes

May 31, 2011 by
Filed under: Summary 

Hickory and Ada OK
21 May 11


This was my birthday. I never have seen a tornado on this date before this year, despite the seemingly ideal time of year for them.

Hold on! Tornado climatology isn’t always how it may seem. For strange cosmic reasons that shall remain a cryptic mystery, that date (green in the graph below) also is an inexplicable and pronounced low-day for tornadoes in the U.S. during this time of year, as shown by Chuck Doswell in one of his research papers published in the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology.

Click to open an enlarged version:

The Intercept:
Elke and I headed S towards the northern rim of vigorous return-flow moisture near the Red River, followed by a unique chase team consisting of David Fogel, his cousins Samara and Ellie, and Ellie’s friend Ella, and of course DF’s equine-sized Leonberger dog, Porthos. [Note: This meant I was chasing with Elke, Ella and Ellie…good times!] Ellie and Ella were first-time chasers this day, giving me hope for some “rookie luck” to overcome my “birthday curse”.

Our target area was southern OK an north TX just E of the dryline, and we settled for the middle: The Red River, heading to GVT to fuel up and await nearby development near the northern nose of the most robust return-flow moisture. On the way down, messy supercells were evident in central TX, well S and Sw of the Metroplex and out of the target area; while a discrete storm rapidly intensified just SW of FTW. A convergence zone was evident in reflectivity imagery extending N from the FTW storm past ADM. This was our hot zone for hot action.

Not wanting to intercept a storm through the Metroplex if we could help it, we held firm at GVT awaiting closer development. That move paid off; as the FTW storm quickly (and rather inexplicably, given the strong buoyancy) perished.

After fueling and getting some technical difficulties fixed with DF’s onboard electronics, we waited a few miles N of town near I-35, admiring wildflowers and convective towers–yes, newly developed moist updrafts to our near WSW and more distant N. The northern towers, even through haze rendered by smoke from Yucatan crop-burning, looked healthier and began glaciating, as viewed across the verdant North Texas savanna. We had a storm to target, brother.

As we pulled onto the I-35 slab and headed N, strong reflectivity echoes started to appear NW of ADM. Those developed quickly into a strong echo, already resembling a supercell by the time we exited the slab and headed E on OK-53. Intense towers rolled up into the back side of the storm with fantastic buoyant force, as seen looking NE from W of Gene Autry.

Zigzagging E and N toward Sulphur, we met the first hilltop base view just in time to view a funnel suspended from an older, occluded mesocyclone to our NW (and W of town). By the time I could pull over safely, the rotation already weakened, the funnel more ragged and not as low, the clear slot cutting well around the cloud-base mesocyclone area.

Focus shifted to a newer area of cloud-base rotation to the E. The storm already was tornado-warned and had been for some time. That appeared justified. This supercell was moving into a very moist, low-LCL air mass with big (and growing) 0-1 km hodographs. This already was the most promising storm I had seen on a birthday, despite some unquestionable jackassery that ensued while viewing the newer mesocyclone area. None of the scuddy, rotating lowerings to our NNE (just E of Sulphur) could tighten up much, and the storm was getting away.

We needed to reposition, despite the lack of great vantages in that hilly and intermittently forested part of the state. Haze clearly was a problem too, and I knew we needed to be close to get better contrast. Before that area of storm-scale rotation could cycle back up, we headed through town. Our bright-eyed, twentysomething supercellular newbies from New Jersey, Ellie and Ella, got serenaded by the stereophonic wail of the Sulphur sirens, offering them an ominously palpable reminder of the menacing side of springtime in Oklahoma.

About halfway E on OK-7 to OK-1, the organization improved, all right. Obligingly, the storm that had been behaving itself during our relocation grew a very broad, extensive updraft base–all of which was rotating, and rather rapidly. Within the tumultuous gyre, every lowering was spinning in its own right, the whole system a seething, cloud-base cauldron of eddies and whirls that defied ready classification. We stopped 3 SSW of Hickory (and 1 W of the OK-1 intersection) to watch its merry-go-round of distinct funnels, shallow and bowl-shaped lowerings, and at least one brief tornado.

Some vortices were more than two miles apart, others adjacent. Where is the cutoff between a broad, multiple-vortex, weakly tornadic circulation, and a multiple-funnel (or multiple-tornado) area of storm-scale rotation? This thoroughly fascinating process unfolding to our NW through N blurred the lines between any such distinctions on the spectrum of atmospheric vortices. Sometimes, it’s just not as simple as categorically declaring tornado or not!

Two of the longer-lasting, lowest-extending condensation funnels (middle and left here, looking NW) initially developed apart at 1924 CDT, within the same mesocyclone. The eastern (right) funnel retrograded almost magnetically toward the western one, intertwining with it as in a seductive love dance. The combined condensation vortex then became more laminar, less scuddy, more wavy, and produced a brief, faint puff of dust beneath (deep crop-n-zoom/enhancement), in an area of very wet ground.

By 1926, the brief tornado was gone, the area of cloud-base rotation (at left in this shot) that had hosted the small, blended tornado vortex weakened. Did you notice anything to the slightly more distant right (NNW) in the last photo? Lo and behold, another area of rotation took shape to its NNE, itself offering a ragged, conical funnel that extended more than halfway down by 1927 CDT. If this was a tornado (couldn’t determine via enhancement or independent eyewitnesses), it was separate from the other, a circulation within a circulation within a circulation. These were far from the only funnels in the storm-scale gyre in just a 10-minute span. What a gloriously complicated mess!

The broader mesocyclone soon began tightening, and we needed to get E and N again to close in for more unambiguous tornado potential. In the process, we crossed a spot of infamy–the very railroad crossing where an agonizingly slow-moving train halted John Hart and I after we saw the distant Hickory tornado of 11 May 1992. That train 19 years ago seemed to go on forever, as the supercell got away, wrapped rain around its SW hook, and produced a multivortex F4 tornado just out of sight. Today, the tracks were clear and such agony didn’t befall us. The same road we couldn’t take way back then was open for business–right here, right now.

We turned NNE on OK-1 and drove almost under the rim of a (by now) very strongly rotating and more classical mesocyclone, stopping at a spot 1.5 SE Hickory when a broad cone funnel appeared about a mile to our NE. At 1934 CDT, a brief filament of whirling condensation rocketed up from the ground beneath the cone as I was exiting the vehicle, and before I could shoot…tornado! The condensation cone soon drew lower. Sinuous, partly translucent vortex filaments materialized beneath and coiled about one another, vaporous marionettes twirled by their tornadic puppet master. By 1927, the cone retreated to a smooth cloud-base bowl, and no vortices or debris could be seen beneath.

The mesocyclone began retreating NE, so we had to zigzag E and N to maintain view as it reorganized, retreated NNE somewhat, cut a deep clear slot, and intensified again. Heading E on unmarked road “E1700” 5 E of Hickory (a variably surfaced path of gravel, dirt and crumbling, antique pavement), we were very fortunate to find another high, relatively unobstructed vantage to our NNW and N.

Just in time, too…the mesocyclone cut a deep clear slot and began twirling funnels beneath with fervor (deeply enhanced crop). For a brief interlude, the spinning cloud mass dipped its southwestern margins into golden beams of sunshine, fluidly swirling together the concepts of atmospheric violence and beauty.

The circulation seemed to plant itself on the earth, chunks of scud forming right down to the ground, ripping across the surface at tornadic speeds, interspersed with intermittent but unmistakable suction vortices–one after another, none lasting more than a few seconds, but collectively, too many to count. This was a very low, humid, multiple-vortex carousel. Sometimes two vortices could be seen interacting while scud and/or suction spots whizzed through other areas of the magnificent maelstrom.

[Some described this tornadic stage as a “wedge”, but the condensation was too ragged, sparse and ephemeral to call it that. Still, if viewed with any blockage by trees or terrain, I can see how such a mistaken description could be made.]

The last evidence of a tornado was at 1953; thereafter the cloud base rotated much more weakly and rose in height. By now, we knew of the larger, newer and stronger supercell W of Ada, but the clearest path to it up US-377 still was blocked by our weakening (yet still potentially hail-bearing) storm.

After letting that supercell pass across the highway, we had a smooth trip to Ada, barely in time to see a conical lowering below the horizon (turned out to be the end stage of its last tornado at 2035 CDT) while still driving. By the time we found a place to stop, a small and ragged funnel remained. No matter, we could marvel at the spectacular storm structure spreading across the western sky. As this storm moved NW of Ada and began weakening, assorted precip shafts cascaded from the cloud base near low-hanging scud chunks, likely yielding any remaining “funnel” or “tornado” reports.

The short but happy drive back to Norman led to a delicious dinner, steak and shrimp for the menfolk, whatever the ladies wanted, kibbles for Porthos out in their vehicle, all in a festive celebration of a fantastic storm-observing day (and for me, the clinching win on the restaurant TVs that sent the Mavericks to the NBA finals). Birthday tornadoes that didn’t hurt anybody, great storm structure, Mavs clinch a playoff series…a great, great day indeed!


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