Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:11 PM GMT on May 23, 2011
The incredibly violent tornado season of 2011 struck another sickening blow last night, when a violent tornado carved a ½ – ¾ mile-wide path of devastation through Joplin, Missouri. At least 89 people died, hundreds were injured, and huge sections of the town virtually obliterated. Damage from the tornado is so severe that pavement was ripped from the ground, which is characteristic of a top-end EF-5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 mph. This was almost certainly a least an EF-4 tornado with winds over 166 mph, and the level of damage is so extreme that this is likely to surpass last month's Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado as the costliest tornado of all-time.
Figure 1. Cars stacked on top of each other in front of the heavily damaged St. Johns Regional Medical Center after the May 22, 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri. Note the pavement ripped up from the road and piled in front of the cars. Tornadoes powerful enough to rip up pavement are frequently classified as EF-5 with winds in excess of 200 mph. Image credit: Chris McCrillis, posted to Twitter.
The huge supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin tornado formed over extreme southeast Kansas yesterday afternoon, along the boundary between warm, moist air flowing northwards from the Gulf of Mexico, and cold, dry air moving south from Canada. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had put the region in its “moderate risk” region for severe weather. As the supercell moved into Southwest Missouri, it spawned the tornado that roared through Joplin at 5:45pm CDT. This storm generated other tornadoes, straight-line wind damage, and flash flooding from torrential rains that exceeded six inches as it moved east southeast across Southwest Missouri. SPC recorded 48 preliminary reports of tornadoes yesterday, bringing the 2-day total for the current outbreak to 70. A tornado also killed one person and injured 22 in Minneapolis Sunday. Separate tornadoes killed one person each in Andice, Texas and Reading, Kansas on Saturday—the first tornado deaths in the U.S. since the April 25 – 28 Super Outbreak.
Figure 2. Radar reflectivity image of the supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin, Missouri tornado, ½ hour after it devastated the city (circle with the “+” symbol.)
Figure 3. Radar Doppler velocity image of the supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin, Missouri tornado, ½ hour after it devastated the city (circle with the “+” symbol.)
Figure 4. Satellite image taken at 5:45pm CDT May 22, 2011, when the Joplin, Missouri tornado was occurring. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.
Deadliest tornado since 1953
Yesterday's Joplin, Missouri tornado is the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. since June 10, 1953, when 94 people died in the Worcester, Massachusetts tornado. The previous deadliest tornado in the past 50 years occurred just last month, when 65 people died in the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham EF-4 tornado in Alabama. This year's tornado death toll now stands at 455, making it the deadliest year for tornadoes in the U.S. since 1953, when 519 people died. The deadliest year was 1925, with 794 deaths. That was the year of the deadliest U.S. tornado of all-time, the great Tri-State tornado, which killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.
More severe weather today
NOAA's Storm Prediction Center has placed a large section of the Midwest U.S., including portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, in its “moderate risk” region for severe weather today. The threat of tornadoes will not be as great today as yesterday, with today's main threat being large hail and damaging straight-line thunderstorm winds. However, I do expect we will see a dozen or so tornadoes today, and residents of the at-risk area need to keep in mind the deadly history of this storm system. The severe weather threat will continue into Tuesday, when additional tornadoes are likely over Oklahoma, Kansas, and Southwest Missouri. A severe thunderstorm roared through Joplin between 8:30am and 9am CDT this morning, bringing heavy rain, small hail, and wind gusts to 36 mph. Undoubtedly, this storm frayed some nerves, and the city will remain at risk of seeing more severe thunderstorms through Tuesday night.
Figure 5. Severe weather threat for Monday, May 23, 2011.
The most remarkable audio I've ever heard of people surviving a direct hit by a violent tornado was posted to Youtube by someone who took shelter in the walk-in storage refrigerator at a gas station during the Joplin tornado. There isn't much video. We won't see a lot of spectacular videos of the Joplin tornado, since it was wrapped in rain and difficult to see.
Listen to my 12-minute interview on the historic April 2011 tornadoes for EarthSky.org, which aired on NPR earlier this month. I discuss how climate change might impact severe weather and tornadoes.
Our weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, has an excellent post on The World's Deadliest Tornadoes.
My 2008 post, Are tornadoes getting stronger and more frequent? The answer is--we don't know.
Figure 6. The Portlight relief trailer being loaded in Summerville, SC, in preparation for a journey to the April tornado disaster zone.
Helping out tornado victims
For those who want to lend a helping hand to those impacted by the widespread destruction this spring's severe weather has brought, stop by the Red Cross website, or portlight.org blog. Portlight has been very active bringing aid to the victims of this year's tornadoes.
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