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 , 5:40 PM GMT on March 03, 2012
A massive tornado outbreak of stunning violence swept through the nation's midsection yesterday, spawning deadly tornadoes that killed at least 31. Hardest hit were Kentucky and Southern Indiana, which suffered 13 and 14 dead, respectively. Three were killed in Ohio, and one in Alabama. The scale of the outbreak was truly exceptional, with a preliminary total of 81 tornadoes touching down in eleven states, from southern Ohio to southern Georgia. At one point, 31 separate tornado warnings were in effect during the outbreak. An area larger than Nebraska--81,000 square miles--received tornado warnings, and tornado watches were posted for 300,000 square miles--an area larger than Texas.
Figure 1. Satellite image of the massive storm that spawned yesterday's tornado outbreak, taken at 4:55 pm EST March 2, 2012. NASA has an impressive satellite animation of the storm. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.
Incredibly fast-moving storms
The speed with which some of the storms moved was truly exceptional, thanks to jet stream winds of up to 115 mph that pushed the thunderstorms forward at amazing speeds. A number of the tornadoes ripped through Kentucky with forward speeds of 70 mph, and two tornado warnings in Central Kentucky were issued for parent thunderstorms that moved at 85 mph. If damage surveys reveal that these thunderstorms did indeed spawn tornadoes, they will set the record for fastest-moving tornadoes in recorded history. The record for the fastest moving tornado is 73 mph, set in 1925 for the great Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest U.S. tornado of all-time. Here's the text from one of the tornado warnings yesterday, featuring a storm moving at 85 mph:
BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE LOUISVILLE KY
439 PM EST FRI MAR 2 2012
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN LOUISVILLE HAS ISSUED A
* TORNADO WARNING FOR...
FAYETTE COUNTY IN EAST CENTRAL KENTUCKY...
THIS INCLUDES THE CITY OF LEXINGTON...
JESSAMINE COUNTY IN EAST CENTRAL KENTUCKY...
EASTERN WOODFORD COUNTY IN EAST CENTRAL KENTUCKY...
* UNTIL 515 PM EST...
* AT 434 PM EST...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM CAPABLE OF PRODUCING A TORNADO. THIS DANGEROUS
STORM WAS LOCATED NEAR WILMORE...MOVING NORTHEAST AT 85 MPH.
Video 1. Short video the violent tornado that devastated West Liberty, Kentucky.
Figure 2. Radar image of the West Liberty, Kentucky tornado of March 2, 2012, showing a classic hook echo. The tornado killed at least 3 people, and devastated the downtown area.
Second largest tornado outbreak so early in the year?
NOAA's Storm Prediction Center logged 81 preliminary tornado reports from yesterday's outbreak as of noon today. These preliminary reports are typically over-counted by 15%, but more delayed reports will likely come in today, and the total number of tornadoes from the outbreak will probably be in the 80 to 90 range. This would put the March 2, 2012 in 2nd or 3rd place for the largest tornado outbreak so early in the year. The top five 2-day tornado outbreaks for so early in the year:
January 21 - 22, 1999: 129 tornadoes, 4 deaths
February 5 - 6, 2008: 87 tornadoes, 57 deaths
March 2, 2012: 81 tornadoes, 31 deaths
February 28 - March 1, 1997: 60 tornadoes, 10 deaths
January 7 - 8, 2008: 56 tornadoes, 4 deaths
Though the 36 tornadoes that occurred during the February 28 - 29 Leap Day outbreak were part of a separate storm system, the 5-day tornado total from February 28 - March 3, 2012 may eclipse the late January 1999 tornado outbreak as the most prolific 5-day period of tornado activity on record for so early in the year.
Figure 3. Damage from the Salyersville, Kentucky tornado of March 2, 2012. Damage characteristic of at least EF-3 intensity occurred. Image credit: Jon Pelton, via the NWS Jackson, KY.
Figure 4. Radar image of the Salyersville, Kentucky tornado of March 2, 2012, showing a classic hook echo of a tornado.
Slight risk of severe weather today over the Southeast U.S.
The storm system that spawned yesterday's severe weather has pushed northwards into Canada, but the trailing cold front is still spawning severe weather over Northern Florida, Southern Georgia, and surrounding states. Three tornadoes have touched down this morning in Southwest Georgia and northern Florida, causing damage but no reported injuries. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center has placed this region in their "Slight Risk" area for severe weather, two steps down from the "High Risk" forecast for Kentucky yesterday. SPC issues "High Risk" forecasts just 3 - 5 times per year, typically. Looking at the long range weather maps, I don't see any storm systems capable of causing major tornado outbreaks coming during the next 7 - 10 days. You can use our Severe Weather Page and Interactive Tornado Page to follow today's storms.
Figure 5. Team Rubicon at work during last year's tornado recovery efforts.
Portlight disaster relief charity responds to the tornado disaster
Portlight has a seasoned veteran from last year's tornado recovery efforts in Harrisburg, IL, and is looking for more people to volunteer their time. They are teaming with another disaster recovery charity, Team Rubicon, in the effort. As usual, they will be focusing efforts on the un-served, under-served and forgotten. Please visit the Portlight Disaster Relief blog to learn more. Donations are always welcome! My heartfelt sympathies and prayers go to all those affected by yesterday's destruction.
I'll be back Monday with much more information on the tornado outbreak.
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