Day of the Six State Supercell

March 12, 2006, will go down not only in history for its historically dense tornado outbreak and the enormous fires in the Texas Panhandle, but also in my own memory as one of the most bizarre and thoroughly interesting weather days imaginable.

Over 100 tornado reports have come in already from the state of Missouri alone — a total that, if it holds up, is likely to set the record for most tornadoes in one state in a 24 hour period. Of course, preliminary numbers such as those linked here will change with time as damage surveys happen and no firm claims for records can yet be made. The numbers probably will shrink some, as multiple reports of the same tornado get condensed into one for each event. [This is quite common and typical for big outbreak events, especially in the modern era when very few tornadoes actually go unrecorded.] However, were I a betting man, I would put heavy money on a record setting single-state tornado toll for one outbreak.

There were a few tornadoes in extreme northeast Oklahoma and in Illinois as well, a couple of which caused major damage and some casualties.

Most of these storms, as expected, were moving at outrageous forward velocities — NE at over 50 mph, some close to 70 mph, through difficult terrain for spotting (hills, trees, and for many, darkness). Somehow, despite those handicaps, several intrepid storm observers managed to see tornadoes in the jungles of Missouri as the supercells raced past at speeds that would be the envy of warp-speed propulsion engineers from Star Wars. We decided not to take undue risk and instead headed home at dusk, after attempting to view their early stages in Kansas.

Yes, I observed part of this event — including the nontornadic first couple of hours of what would become the longest-track, longest-lived supercell I’ve ever heard of: The Six State Supercell. Bobby Prentice examined the radar data and determined that this storm formed in Noble County, Oklahoma, and died about 17-1/2 hours later, in Jackson County, Michigan! His track measurement was 790 statute miles. Iowa State Unversity has posted a fascinating storm-relative radar loop (19 MB MPG video media) that is well worth downloading for any severe weather aficionados with broadband connections.

The Six State Supercell got away from us (Rich Thompson, my son David, and me) before it produced the Sedalia area tornado; however mising the tornadoes didn’t upset me given the herculean feat required simply to keep up with the storm for someone chasing from Norman. I felt prveleged to be able to watch it form, and to at least stay with it long enough to see some parts of such an amazing storm. For chase details, as well as the text of my pre-chase forecast, please see my full storm intercept log, posted on my storm intercept BLOG. Rich also has uploaded some of his digital photos online from the daylight part of our excursion. [I have no functional digital camera at the moment, but will by early-mid April.]

Then there were the Texas Panhandle fires, truly epic infernos shoved along for miles and miles by 50-60 mph gusts. These grassfires toasted more acreage in one day (about 600,000) than Arizona’s legendary Chediski-Rodeo fire covered in three weeks! On the way back from the storm intercept trip, and less than an hour after driving through hail from what would become the Springfield MO tornadic supercell, we penetrated over 60 miles of smoke from the fires burning 200 miles away. Amazing. Smoke reduced visibility in central Oklahoma City to less than two miles.

Unfortunately the Panhandle fires killed several people as well, adding to the day’s weather death toll. In case the web sources disappear, I’ve posted some satellite imagery of the fires (color enhanced infrared, annotated regular IR and visible satellite image the next day, with charred areas as dark blotches in the east-central and northeast Panhandle) courtesy NWS and NASA. The counties in the eastern Panhandle are 30 by 30 statute miles square, for reference. One fire reached about forty miles long.

If that weren’t enough, a freakish downburst, violently vomited by an elevated supercell, caused a great deal of damage in Lawrence KS the morning of the 12th. The debris-filled and swirling eddies, loud roar and extent of damage cause some folks to believe (erroneously) that it was a tornado. The supercell was elevated above a cold, stable surface layer with temperatures in the 50s; however, since the air aloft and downdraft temperatures each were quite cold as well, the storm’s outflow winds stayed severe from cloud to surface.

I could go on, but I must go to sleep instead. It should suffice to conclude that March 12 was one of the most intense, fascinating and downright weird weather days in the central U.S., in a long, long time.


5 Responses to “Day of the Six State Supercell”

  1. Susan on March 14th, 2006 7:56 am

    Watching that supercell plow majestically from state to state to state, I couldn’t help wondering just how close we came to a new tri-state (or worse) tornado.

    Definitely a wacky weather day all around.

  2. tornado on March 14th, 2006 10:52 pm

    Susan and others,

    Indeed. The loop is mesmerizing, or at a minimum, compels repeat viewing to catch another little detail of the storm’s evolution that wasn’t seen previously.

    Here’s another interesting view of it compiled by Doug Speheger (a.k.a. spEg), for those who can’t deal with the 19 MB file size of the loop.

  3. JG on March 15th, 2006 7:43 pm

    I managed to catch up to this supercell just before it passed through Columbia, MO. During the approach, I observed the most massive back sheared anvil I can ever recall. Just the fact that this supercell’s updraft could be so upright in such an extremely sheared environment is testament to its strength. Chase account is provided at the URL.

  4. tornado on March 17th, 2006 2:06 pm

    Of course, the storm itself was moving 40-50 kt, so that should be subtracted from the ambient winds at anvil level to get a truer concept of the flow against which the backshearing current was fighting. But I’m impressed!

    How timely you mentioned the backshear, for another reason too. Melanie Darrow, wife of SPC forecaster Mark, happened to be flying from ORD-OKC on Sunday afternoon when she noticed an interesting looking cloud out the window and decided to snap a picture (Canon Powershot S30, 1/1000 s exposure at f5.0). Wouldn’t you know it…it was the Six State Supercell, shortly before it put down the Sedalia tornado. She got a better photo of this storm’s convective structure than any of us on the ground (posted by permission)…

    Check out the trails from other planes also doing (well justified) diversionary maneuvers around it!

    As for the path and position of her aircraft, here was a screen capture from FlightAware within one minute of her snapshot.

  5. Bob on July 13th, 2006 1:56 pm

    Just going through your archives and found this entry. What a memorable day that was for me! My chase partner and I drove from Michigan for what promised to be an interesting day. We intercepted the storm just to the north of the six-state monster northwest of Columbia, MO, then dropped south and headed down the interstate to Columbia, where I got very brief footage of a large, indistinct tornado off to the west. We then followed that storm along the highway and then northeast through the Missouri backroads–and you bet we were burning asphalt. The storm ingested its northern neighbor near the MO/IL border, as I recall. By then, night had fallen and we got a fabulous lightning show.

    We were approaching Springfield, IL, when the storm put down a tornado that crossed the road maybe a mile in front of us and caused. I just couldn’t believe the longevity of the beast–it just wouldn’t quit, and when we crossed the Michigan border it was still alive and well to our south.

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