Skip to main content

The making of a nightmare tornado

By Louis Wicker, Special to CNN
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
A message is left by a homeowner who lost his home in the May 20 tornado on Monday, May 27, in Moore, Oklahoma. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/20/us/gallery/midwest-weather/index.html'>View more photos of the aftermath in the region</a> and another gallery of <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/21/us/gallery/oklahoma-tornado-aerials/index.html'>aerial shots of the damage</a>. A message is left by a homeowner who lost his home in the May 20 tornado on Monday, May 27, in Moore, Oklahoma. View more photos of the aftermath in the region and another gallery of aerial shots of the damage.
HIDE CAPTION
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
Deadly tornado hits Oklahoma City area
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author: Hard to fathom three major tornado events have hit Moore, Oklahoma, in 14 years
  • He says it's not unusual for an extreme tornado to strike the Midwest
  • A tornado can form when a sharp updraft meets faster winds of the jet stream
  • Predictions have improved, but research may yield further advances, he says

Editor's note: Louis Wicker is a research meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.

Norman, Oklahoma (CNN) -- On Tuesday morning, the residents of Moore, Oklahoma, woke again to another nightmare.

In the past 14 years, Moore and its nearby neighbors have been subjected to devastation from three major tornado events.

The latest chapter in this nearly unimaginable history was the EF5 tornado that claimed the lives of 24 people and injured hundreds. But how unusual is this tornado in context?

While the frequency is unusual, especially over such a short period, the actual tornado is less of an anomaly. Over the same 14 years, there were a number of similar events.

The Joplin, Missouri, tornado of May 22, 2011, destroyed 25% of the town and killed 158 people. The path length for the Joplin tornado was similar in length and width, about 20 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.

The "original" Moore tornado on May 3,1999, was rated F5 (NOAA now uses the enhanced Fujita scale, called the "EF" scale). It killed 36 people in Moore and had a similar path length.

On April 27, 2011, fifteen EF4 and EF5 tornadoes tracked across Mississippi and Alabama -- many having damage tracks that extended for dozens of miles.

So while horrible and sad, this extreme class of tornado occurs regularly in the United States. And when these tornadoes travel across populated areas, we see their awesome power at its worst.

Inside a personal tornado shelter
CNN iReporter steps in to rescue victims
Moore mayor on school safety in tornadoes
Storm chaser: I was in a shock

So what do we know about the conditions that cause these violent storms?

First, the atmosphere must be what is called potentially unstable. Potentially means the atmosphere must first build up heat and moisture near the ground, like fueling the gas tank of your car for a long trip.

Unstable means that if an imaginary balloon filled with air from near the ground were to be lifted upward, colliding with some weather feature such as a cold front, the "balloon" would become warmer than the surrounding air at that level. The initial "push" upward by the cold front on that balloon filled with surface air is like a child letting a helium-filled balloon go -- it just keeps rising.

The difference is that on these violent tornado days, the balloon does not just rise in a leisurely way. It slingshots upward, especially when the air inside cools enough to condense all the water vapor it carries.

It's the extra heat released when the water vapor condenses that is like a driver flooring a car's accelerator. The balloon of surface air quickly reaches speeds of 100 to 150 mph going straight up!

Our "balloons" -- meteorologists call them "updrafts" -- are the engines of the storm. The energy released in the updrafts then interacts with our second ingredient needed for violent tornadoes, the change of the wind direction and speed at you go upward from the ground.

Anyone who has flown knows that the wind speed increases with height. These violent storms almost always require that the wind speeds increase from 20 mph on the ground to more than 100 mph (horizontally) aloft.

Spin in the storm's updraft is enhanced when the air entering the base of the updraft is from the south, while the winds further aloft are flowing from west to east. This is the so-called jet stream, the fast river of air that helps drive our weather, which interacts with the storm's updrafts to create a spinning column of air.

It is this updraft spin, or mesocyclone, that creates the tornado.

When the updrafts are strong and the wind shear large, the spin inside the mesocyclone becomes very fast. And in the most extreme cases, a violent tornado is born beneath that spinning white cloud of updraft that meteorologists call the supercell thunderstorm.

So how well can we predict these storms?

Tornado deaths during the past 50 years have declined considerably, indicating our forecasting and warning skill has improved considerably.

The deployment of the Doppler radar system in the early 1990s by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended tornado warning lead times from five minutes to their now-annual average of 12 to 14 minutes. But other factors have improved warnings as well since then.

During the past 20 years, supercell thunderstorms have been the focus of intense academic and government research to understand how they work and how they produce tornadoes.

Two major field programs have studied these storms using dozens of mobile weather stations, aircraft and Doppler radars. The result from all these years of research and training was displayed Monday. Forecasters from the National Weather Service Office in Norman, Oklahoma, were very aware that the atmosphere in and around central Oklahoma had all the ingredients for significant tornadoes.

Knowing that the atmosphere could produce a strong tornado, they immediately issued the tornado warning as soon as the Doppler radar started to show low-level rotation within the storm.

This warning was 16 minutes before the touchdown of the Moore tornado outside of Newcastle, Oklahoma, and nearly an hour before the end of the tornado some 20 miles away.

Undoubtedly, the long lead time saved countless lives. I'm one of a number of researchers at NOAA who are working on ways to combine all of the environmental, radar and other weather data into a computer model that will attempt to predict when the tornado will develop and how strong it will be as much as an hour in advance.

This "Warn on Forecast" concept, while showing promise, is still years away from being a reality.

So until then, when you hear the tornado sirens or tornado warning, take cover immediately. Like the people in Moore, your life may depend on it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Louis Wicker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT