Jun 222012

Gary Ellison Plays Some Ragtime

While attending my daughter’s piano recital Thursday night, we all got a treat.

After all of the kids played their pieces (I’ll post my daughters songs too), Janet Ellison, the music teacher, asked her husband Gary to play some music.

Now Gary Ellison has the designation of “Missouri’s Official Ragtime Piano Player”.  I knew this from the first day we signed my daughter up and even heard him play one tune.

But to my surprise, he gave us a history lesson AND sang!

Gary gave a review of the songs written by Missouri’s most famous composer.  I knew some of these melodies but (and I shouldn’t have been surprised by this) my Mom was much more familiar with a few of them.

I’ll let the video tell the rest of the story. Thanks Gary!

Jun 032012

SPC Slight Risk for Today

We have some morning rain and thunder in the Ozarks. This activity is not expected to be severe, perhaps a hail report or two may come of this.

Later today, air out to our west will become more unstable with daytime heating and higher dew points out over Kansas and Oklahoma. This in conjunction with a disturbance in the upper atmosphere will cause storms to re-fire out west. These are expected to be severe and some of them will move into the Ozarks later today.

Here’s my morning Vlog report on what is expected today.  I’ll be doing another update early this afternoon.

May 222012

3D Rotation at Peak Intensity

It was one year ago today, on a Sunday, that an insidious tornado tore through the southern portion of Joplin, Missouri.

Insidious because of how quickly it formed, where it formed, how intense it became and where it traveled.

Even with all of the technology at our disposal, 158 people lost their lives (NWS statistics).  Here is a list of the highest single tornado death tolls on record.

Back in the 1950’s, a tornado killed 116 people in Flint, Michigan. During and soon after this tornado, huge advancements were made in tornado awareness,  radar technology, storm forecasting (the “watch box” was introduced to the public) and emergency response.  It has been stated that Flint was the last 100+ person death-toll from a single tornado due in large part to all of these advances and others such as warnings, weather radio and Doppler radar.  While this is no doubt true, no one should believe that we reached a plateau or that this type of disaster could not happen again.

In fact, just as you would adjust what the dollar is worth because of inflation, this Joplin death toll needs a similar adjustment. Note on the list I linked above that all of the deadly tornadoes higher than Joplin happened before there was radar (Doppler or otherwise), tornado warnings, tornado watches, television, cell phones and certainly the internet.  When considered in this light, the tragedy of Joplin glares even brighter.

High death tolls are a matter of horrible circumstances coming together.  The real truth is that this can happen again and it will, somewhere.  Population areas continue to expand.  There are some who think even higher fatalities are possible.

Before I go any further, I would recommend reading the National Weather Service “Service Assessment Report” for the Joplin tornado (PDF file).  A panel of individuals performed an assessment (as they do for most major tornadoes and/or outbreaks) of the events leading up to the this tornado.  There are some valuable insights in this paper.

I’m an old school guy with regard to tornado warnings.  Even with my all of my experience with tornadoes in the Ozarks and my inside knowledge of radar signatures, our family still takes shelter, without question, when a tornado warning is issued.  I’m a strong believer that a tornado warning is not “soft”, rather, it offers a choice to take shelter, yes or no. A personal decision.

But many people don’t take shelter, at least not right away.  The reasons vary but it mostly stems from a rather inescapable truth about tornado warnings: many times, nothing happens to you personally after the warning expires, even if a tornado is reported in the warned area. I state this not as a slam of the warning process but as more of a reality check of the current knowledge and dissemination limitations of the warning system.

The assessment report hits on this when it states that many folks sought a “second opinion” before deciding whether the tornado warning was important enough or close enough to take action. It is human nature to want to know what is going on around you.

Everyone needs to know that we in this country are fortunate enough to have a government organization, the National Weather Service (NWS), whose mission it is to save lives and to watch 24/7 for threatening, destructive or deadly weather situations.  This is a free service paid for by your tax dollars. The warning system is a good one. Not perfect but good. It is easy to loose site of the fact that the people in the hot seat issuing warnings have a tough job. They are being asked for more and more precision even when the current technology, understanding of the meteorological process, small scale sampling of the atmosphere and dissemination paths are not up to full potential.

The question I would throw out is this: are far can we take the precision of the tornado warning process?  There is an old observation, made to drive home the idea of not ignoring tornado warnings, which states “no one is going to come and ring your doorbell and tell you a tornado is coming!” Well, I don’t know about doorbells but technology might help in the not-too-distant future.

The NWS is slowing rolling out a warning system in corporation with the cell phone industry which will give you a short text warning based on you GPS position.  The only issue I might have with this is when cell towers go down or become overloaded during large tornadoes like Joplin.

On the other hand, weather radio is essential to anyone who takes storm safety seriously.  The reason: it broadcasts a signal on a VHF frequency 24/7 and has the ability to alert you by county and to wake you up if weather threatens while you sleep. My only wish would be to make them GPS-aware in the future which would improve the accuracy and make them truly portable.  It’s one device which should definitely remain a uni-tasker, designed only to do one thing!

Coming back to the Joplin tornado, the amount of time it took for this tornado to become a monster was very, very small. The tornado was low to the ground, perhaps indistinguishable to the untrained eye from a low cloud near the ground and made worse if trees and building blocked the view of the horizon. It started on the edge of very densely populated city (couldn’t see it coming for miles and minutes beforehand). It was really the second storm to threaten the Joplin area that evening (read the assessment report) which may have caused some confusion.

This video shows the beginning of the Joplin tornado and sums up how quickly it spun into existence:

Mar 122012

It is *oh* so important to talk about the concept of tornado weather.

Tornado weather is not as obvious as you might think.  If you are relying on just your senses, you can be misled.

The most important statement I can make here is that a tornado watch means tornado weather so watch for tornadoes, no matter what time of day or year it happens to be!

Many of you probably have some less than useful statistics in your head regarding tornado occurrence.  The idea that statistically tornadoes tend to strike in the late afternoon and in the spring months, while not inaccurate, is not very helpful when assessing the risk for a tornado.  One only has to to look to our Leap Day Outbreak to know that tornadoes can and do strike at night and in February!

Moreover, studies (namely the Super Tuesday Outbreak Assessment PDF file) show that people may not take tornado information like a watch area as serious if it occurs during a cool time of year or during what they consider to be a lesser threat time of day or year.

From the assessment:

“Over 50 percent of the people interviewed acknowledged that they associate tornado outbreaks with the springtime or summer months. This caused many of them to minimize the threat of this early February outbreak because of their perception that it was too early in the year and outside the “traditional” tornado season.”

Many of the ingredients which make a weather pattern tornadic simply cannot be sensed such as overall strong jet stream winds, the proper low level winds (not just windy!) and particulars involving unstable air, to name a few.  This is why meteorologist are charged with the task of looking for these features and alerting the public to their presence.  If you think about it, you’ve experienced strong winds, high humidity days, abnormally warm weather, cold air colliding into warm, thunderstorms, etc, lots of times without tornadoes forming, there is obviously more to tornado forecasting!

Now, is there anything you can do to help yourself? Sure!

  • Look at Radar: There are so many sources to see radar screens now.  The interactive radar at Ozarks First is a great place for a quick look.  It’s a situational awareness concept: are there thunderstorms close to you?  How fast are they moving and from what direction?  Knowing that thunderstorms are near even before you see darker skies gives you a leg up!
  • Buy a Weather Radio: As I stated before, these are great little devices that can be programmed to alert you when severe weather threatens your immediate area.
  • Pay Attention to Tornado Warnings!:  Wow, pretty simple.  There are some who don’t act because they believe nothing has ever come of warnings in the past therefore they aren’t worth listening to. Get over it!  While they are not perfect, tornado warnings are the best information we can muster as meteorologists.  The National Weather Service is always trying to improve the process. It’s a matter of personal responsibility!

FYI, if you hear the “freight train” or rumbling sound of a tornado, you’d better already be in a shelter!  The sound of a tornado is caused by the intense wind which ramps up quickly close to the tornado. With weaker tornadoes, no hearing advantage at all.  In the largest storms, perhaps some.  If you hear it, it’s very close!  I wouldn’t rely on hearing a tornado as your only “OK, this is serious” clue.

Finally, a note on warning sirens.  The outdoor tornado warning sirens are extremely helpful but in case you didn’t know, they were never intended to be heard by everyone, especially if you are inside.  If you are relying on outdoor sirens as your only alert to a possible tornado you are in trouble!

Next blog on this topic: Taking Shelter!






Mar 112012

This is severe weather awareness week in Missouri.  It was picked to be in March, right before the severe weather season kicks in although I have more to say about this in my next post!  The primary concern is for tornadoes, severe winds and large hail awareness during this week.  Lightning and flash flooding have their own awareness times although it certainly wouldn’t hurt to review all dangerous weather.

Regardless of when awareness week is (and it varies from state to state), here are some of the things you should be thinking about.

First, the entire state will have a tornado drill on Tuesday, March 13th at 1:30 pm.  This test is to encourage people to think about what they would do in the event of a tornado.  Treat it as a you would a real tornado and think about what you would do to stay safe, keeping in mind that you may be in different places like home, work, school, shopping, etc.  Also keep in mind that all family members must know what to do even if the entire family is not together!

Second, make a commitment to buy a weather radio.  Why? Because it can be programmed to alert you only when the weather threat is in or close to the county you reside in.  By alert, I mean sound a tone that can wake you up!

I will blog about this all week, in the meantime,

Please visit the National Weather Service site for additional information and links to useful information.

Also, a tornado FAQ web site is maintained at the Storm Prediction Center.

Next blog on this topic: What Is Tornado Weather?



Feb 292012

Rough Sketch of Damage Tracks

This is the first report on what will always be remembered as the tornado outbreak which produced a tornado on Country Boulevard, Highway 76 in Branson.

But this wasn’t the only area hit by twisters.  Kimberling City, Buffalo and Lebanon, Missouri had probable tornadoes.  Other damage was reported in Lamar, Stockton, Cassville and in Barry County.  The actual number of twisters (and their EF rating) won’t be known until National Weather Service survey teams make their assessments.

One known fatality occurred in Buffalo, MO. Another death has been confirmed in Cassville.

The storms were moving fast, with average speeds of around 60 mph!  They formed under a very strong jet stream.  Also, winds within the lowest mile above the ground were very favorable for rotating storms and tornadoes.