SPOTTR class field trip blog

Four years ago, Dan and I started a new course at Purdue entitled Severe Storms Field Work. One of the students dubbed it Students of Purdue Observing Tornadic Thunderstorms for Research (SPOTTR), which became the unofficial class moniker. Our objective is to give students a taste of real severe weather research by involving them on our field programs, while teaching them the basics of severe storms forecasting and research techniques. All this happens in a scant four weeks. SPOTTR’s grown into a small phenomenon over the years, attracting students from outside atmospheric science and even from outside Purdue.

Two SPOTTR students deploying a PIPS

Two SPOTTR students practice deploying a Portable In Situ Precipitation Station (PIPS).

This year’s class field trip gets underway on Saturday, 25 May and runs through the end of May. As always, we’ll be using the Twitter handle @EAPS_SPOTTR.

We also have two special guests along for the ride: Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman, who co-authored The Tornado Scientist children’s book in which I was featured earlier this year. They will be live-blogging the trip at Please bookmark it and follow along!

Greetings from Purdue / New book!

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you read about me in The Tornado Scientist by Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman, and were curious whether this blog was still active. If so, welcome! Yes, I am still alive. It was never my intent for this blog to “go dark” when I left Norman three-and-a-half years ago. I’ve simply got enough professional obligations to fill 200% of my available working hours every week. Academic life is not for the faint of heart! On top of all that, Dan and I added a second child to our family in 2017 – double the fun! I’m usually asleep within 10 minutes of my head hitting the pillow every night, so blogging is been far from my first priority. If you really care about what I’m doing or thinking on a daily basis, follow my @tornatrix Twitter feed.

Robin presenting a poster about Purdue's new radar at the 2018 AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Stowe, Vermont.
Presenting a poster about Purdue’s new radar at the 2018 AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Stowe, Vermont.

It’s not like I have any shortage of stuff to write at about. Here are some highlights of the last few years that I hope to write up at length:

  • I started my own lab at Purdue – The Weather Radar Research Laboratory (WRRL – see what I did there?), where I’ve had two or three grad students under my tutelage since 2016. It’s been such a privilege to work with them all.
  • I was a co-PI (principal investigator) for VORTEX-Southeast in 2016 and 2017. VORTEX-Southeast is a very different animal from VORTEX2. (Speaking of which, I recently realized this year marks TEN YEARS since VORTEX2 began. When did I get so old?!?)
  • I participated in field work remotely while caring for a tiny baby – something that would not have been possible during VORTEX2. I sure hope I can write about that experience sometime.
  • Dan and I started a new class at Purdue called “Severe Storms Field Work”, where we give eight lucky students a taste of the Great Plains chasing life each year in exchange for their assistance collecting meteorological data. You can follow our adventures each year on the class Twitter feed, @eaps_spottr.
  • I spearheaded an effort to get a weather radar installed at Purdue – a dream that finally came to fruition last summer. The X-band Teaching and Research Radar (XTRRA) has been up and running since September 2018.
  • I landed an NSF grant for more than half a million dollars to study polarimetric radar signatures in potentially tornadic supercells.
  • I’ve also developed a burgeoning interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, mainly so I can improve my teaching abilities for the dozens of students I teach and mentor every year.
  • I led a pilot study to test storm spotter reactions to shortwave infrared (SWIR) imagery of thunderstorm cloud bases, in collaboration with an undergraduate student and Sensors Unlimited.
  • I’ve presented at about half a dozen meteorological conferences in locations ranging from Portland, Oregon to the Netherlands. Those conferences provide rare chances for me to reconnect with my “Oklahomies.”
  • I hosted an educational deployment of a Doppler on Wheels as part of my Radar Meteorology class at Purdue last spring.
  • Last but not least, I had the privilege to work with Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman on The Tornado Scientist. The book proposal was appealing to me because the target age range is 8 to 11 years. I wanted to put myself out as a role model, particularly for young teens at risk of losing interest in STEM careers.

To all my new followers, I extend my greetings, and invite questions. I can’t always guarantee responses in a timely manner, but I will do my best!

A farewell to Norman

The time has come for our family to leave Norman, Oklahoma. My husband and I are about to start new chapters as Assistant Professors in the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department at Purdue University in Indiana. We were reluctant to leave Norman, severe weather capitol of the world, after 13 years, but were presented with an opportunity that was just too good to pass up. Dual tenure track positions only come along once in a blue moon! We’ll also be much closer to family. Of course, we’ll miss Norman, but we plan to be back – often. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking stock of the things that make Norman a special and unique place to live.

Things I will miss about living in Norman, Oklahoma:

  • The dryline. (Duh!)
  • Watermelon Slim concerts
  • Watching planes take off and land over roadhouse toast at Ozzies
  • Imbibing Swirls on the patio at The Mont
  • The Weekend Blues on KGOU
  • Grillfests
  • Steak houses where you can drop peanut shells on the floor while Joe Diffee plays in the background, and whose cooks know what “medium rare” means.
  • Mild winters
  • The Oklahoma Mesonet
  • Fried okra
  • The Oklahoma Food Coop
  • Having other severe weather geeks next door, upstairs, downstairs, across the table, across the street, and across town.
  • Clear Bay Cafe (I hope they re-open soon!)
  • Radomes on the horizon every where I go.
  • Copelin’s
  • Annie’s Ruff House
  • Tex-Mex and BBQ done right.
  • Scissor-tailed flycatchers
  • Catching up with friends over brunch migas at Abner’s
  • Penny, our friendly neighborhood peahen

    “Penny,” our friendly neighborhood peahen

  • All the friends and professional connections I’ve made here. (At least I get to take my husband with me!)

Things I will NOT miss about living in Norman, Oklahoma:

  • Blast furnace summers
  • Being used for target practice while cycling
  • Game day gridlock
  • That weird Prairie Kitchen on Main St. that sat there for over a decade, apparently vacant, but with its lighted sign glowing, like a post-apocalyptic apparition.
  • The not-so-subtle flavor of Lake Dirtybird turning over

When I moved to Norman in 2002:

  • From my first apartment (at Apple Creek), I could look across I-35 at an empty strip of land west of Max Westheimer Airport, punctuated by a large mound of earth farcically called Mount Williams.
  • Target was located at Main & 24th.
  • OU’s School of Meteorology was still housed in Sarkeys Energy Center. The National Weather Center was on the drawing board, but hadn’t yet been built.
  • Coach’s was still Coach’s (and still standing), with patrons of the Vista sneering at them from high above.
  • There was still a DQ on Main.
  • Smartphones didn’t exist. When our group needed internet connectivity while chasing, we actually had to stop the car. Then, we would either commandeer a public phone for AOL dialup, or mooch free wifi from motels.
  • House of Hunan was still in business. It was located down the strip from the now-defunct-but-maybe-not-for-long dollar theater.
  • I was single. One fateful day, I wandered into Alan Shapiro’s Advanced Dynamics I class, and sat down next to a guy wearing fishbowl glasses and a giant wristwatch sporting a popup anemometer. I thought, “Who is that dork?” The rest, as they say, is history.

I have big plans for continuing my research at Purdue. (We’ll see how well they square with the reality of faculty life!) I’m sure we’ll be making plenty of trips back to Norman… particularly in the springtime!

Review: The Mercy of the Sky by H. Bailey

Holly Bailey has written an engaging account of the 20 May 2013 Moore, Oklahoma, EF-5 tornado: The Mercy of the Sky. I watched this tornado from the window of the KOUN control building on the north side of Norman. From my vantage point, several miles away, it was a silent, bluish-gray elephant trunk on the horizon, cloaked in dust. As it moved past me to the north, crossing I-35 in Moore, I lost all view of it against the background precipitation. I knew lives were being upended – and, in some cases, ended – at the ground beneath it. This book tells the story of the chaos that I could not see unfolding.
The Mercy of the Sky
The devastation the 2013 Moore tornado wrought was revealed to me largely via the media over the next weeks and months. I already knew full well the story of the National Weather Service, the local media, and storm chasers’ activities on that day. Familiar dramatis personae like NWS’s Rick Smith and my Ph.D. adviser, Howie Bluestein, are key players in the book. For me, The Mercy of the Sky filled in the story of what happened to the people on the ground in the tornado’s path: homeowners frantically seeking shelter, school administrators and teachers protecting students at Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools with their own bodies, a farmhand at Orr Family Farms turning horses loose from their stables in the hopes they might instinctively outrun the tornado, and the heartache of (mis)counting the dead afterward.

So compelling were the tales woven together in this book that I finished it in three days. I came away knowing a short list of the names of the people who experienced the tornado firsthand. Bailey, an Oklahoma native, is a talented writer with a penchant for simile (For example, writing about a group of people watching tornado debris from nearby buildings descend from the sky, “It looked like they were inside a snow globe of construction materials that was slowly being shaken up,” p. 218). She also does a very thorough job establishing the context in which the 2013 Moore tornado occurred, including an abbreviated history of the rise of severe storms research in Oklahoma, the TV “weather wars,” and the 3 May 1999 F-5 Moore tornado. Along the way, I learned some local factoids I didn’t know before (e.g., Jim Gardner, KWTV’s helicopter pilot, was the same pilot who covered O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco ride back in 1994).

Speaking meteorologically, Bailey’s conveyed understanding of storm formation only barely exceeds the clichéd “clash of air masses“, a point she readily admits. She repeatedly refers to radar as a predictive tool that can “project” where storms will go. In fact, radars cannot make predictions, only observations. Additional software tools are required to turn radar observations into forecasts. That may seem like a trivial distinction to most readers, but to me, a research meteorologist specializing in radar data assimilation, the difference translates into an extensive body of research.

In spite of a few hiccups like these, I greatly enjoyed the Mercy of the Sky, and recommend it to anyone interested in learning about the interplay between severe weather and regional culture.

Storm merger paper

I have a new paper in this month’s issue of the journal Weather and Forecasting entitled “Impacts of a Storm Merger on the 24 May 2011 El Reno, Oklahoma, Tornadic Supercell“. In it, my coauthors and I investigated whether a particular instance of a smaller storm merging into a mature tornadic supercell (“Storm B” in the NWS nomenclature) was related to the “handoff” between tornadoes B1 and B2. The answer, for this particular case, was “No.”

I made a 12-minute presentation about the work behind this publication at the 27th AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. To summarize, when we assimilated phased array radar (PAR) data into a model to retrieve the updrafts, I found that, despite the apparent union of the reflectivity contours just before the tornado handoff, the updrafts actually joined together about 10 minutes later, approximately 5 minutes after the tornado handoff. Therefore, we were not convinced that the merger caused the handoff in this particular instance. We speculated, because of the complexity of the interactions between the two storms, that not all storm mergers would proceed like this one. Our speculations align with a wealth of anecdotal storm chaser observations, wherein storm mergers are associated with a spectrum of outcomes ranging from apparent enhancement of to cessation of tornado production. A great deal of research remains to be done on the relationship between storm mergers and tornadogenesis.

Chase log for May 2015, including the 05-16 Elmer / Tipton, OK tornado

Having fallen woefully behind on my chase logs, let me briefly summarize this month’s action so far with a bunch of mini-logs. Many of the longer-range excursions were made possible by a very patient babysitter. Thanks, Miss Autumn!

05-06-2015: Lahoma – Chisholm – Wakita, OK storm Chase partners: Dan D., Jeff S. Nick B., Hamish R.
We headed up toward a prospective S KS target initially, but stopped near Lamont, OK when we heard about a tornadic storm brewing near Chickasha. Not wanting to be suckered into dropping all the way back south, we held up in Pond Creek, watching nascent storms organize. From there, we zigzagged southwest to intercept a beautifully-sculpted supercell near Lahoma that teased us with a few condensation filaments.

Lahoma, OK supercell, view toward the W

Lahoma, OK supercell, view toward the W

The same storm, later that evening, near Wakita, OK

The same storm, later that evening, near Wakita, OK

Nick believes at least one of them connected with the ground.

From there, we basically reversed our zigzag as we paced the ex-Lahoma storm back toward the northeast, passing through Chisholm, Lamont, and Pond Creek. Meanwhile, we each had an eye on a robust supercell bearing down on Norman, fielding calls from our babysitter about where she and our son should shelter in the worst case scenario. The storm eventually spawned an EF2 that affected the west side of town, and dropped some one-inch hail at our house. Back up north, we finally called the chase off near South Haven, KS. We returned back to Norman close to midnight, witnessing a pocket of damage near 51st street in South OKC on the way, evident from the power outages.

05-08-2015: Norman hailstorm Chase partners: D3
This wasn’t really a chase, but an in situ sampling of severe weather nonetheless. While Dan D. was off chasing near Wichita Falls, I agreed to operate KOUN in the evening. At 5 p.m., I had to leave the KOUN building to collect my son from day care. I was aware of an anemic-looking cell brewing over Blanchard, as well as a larger complex of storms to the west. With no real-time display available, I pointed the KOUN sector to the west and set it a bit wider than usual, then left the site. As I made the drive to day care and back, the sky first grew dark, then green. Simulcast TV coverage on the radio informed me that the situation in west Norman had deteriorated quickly. My son chattered excitedly from the back seat, “Storm there?” Then, as I passed the hallowed ground of 1313 Halley Circle, the hail and driving rain began to fall in earnest. I had planned to grab my son and dart into the building as quickly as I could, but as soon as I opened my car door, I was blasted in the face with one-inch-diameter hailstones and blinding rain.

The Blanchard storm had indeed intensified and generated both a hook echo, and a swath of 2.5″ hail near Tecumseh & I-35 (about a mile to my north). Once the icy battering subsided, my son and I went inside together, where I found KOUN merrily collecting data in the sector I’d left it on. I hope it captured the rapid intensification. (I offloaded the time series to someone else who will process it later this season.) After about 6:30 p.m., with the Norman storm now well off to the east and an antsy toddler trying to climb out of his playpen, I decided to call it a night, and returned control of KOUN to the ROC. Naturally, as we were driving home, the ex-Norman storm reintensified and produced a tornado near Shawnee. Garbage! KOUN was still collecting in VCP 11, so it captured this event, just not in the rapid-scan mode I’d been using earlier.

05-09-2015: Near-miss at Burkburnett, TX Chase partners: Dan D., Jeff S., Nick B., Steve W.
Our initial target on this day was Wichita Falls, TX. A supercell had already gone up near Abeliene and was happily producing tornadoes, but it was too far south to be a viable target for us. We contemplated targeting two developing storms: one near Jacksboro, TX, and one nearer our latitude, approaching Electra, TX. We opted to take a look at the Electra storm, leaving the option open to drop south to Jacksboro. We moved a couple miles north of U.S. Hwy. 287 on Harmony Rd., and took in the Electra storm as it surged forward to swallow us into its navy blue maw.

Supercell approaching Electra, TX at about 5:45 p.m.

Supercell approaching Electra, TX at about 5:45 p.m.

We darted back south to escape the approaching RFD, and then retraced our route back southeast on U.S. Hwy. 287. We chose to forgo an intercept near Burkburnett, TX, prioritizing a run back across the TX-OK border on either I-44 or TX-79. Big mistake! The Electra storm abruptly hooked right, and we heard chatter on the NWS spotter frequency about a tornado crossing the road near Burkburnett. By then we were deep into Wichita Falls, and could not recover back to Burkburnett in time. By the time we did reacquire a visual on the business end of the storm near Byers, TX, it had lifted across the Oklahoma border and gusted out. After crossing at I-44 after all, we paced the whale’s mouth east along U.S. Hwy. 70 for nearly 40 miles before finally calling it quits. We licked our wounds over a nice dinner at Two Frogs Grill in Ardmore, OK.

05-16-2015: Elmer-Tipton, OK tornado Chase partners: Dan D., Jeff S. Steve W., Mark S., Mike C.
After considering targets ranging from Shamrock to Childress, we decided on the latter, and headed southwest in a three-car caravan. As we drove first down I-44, then west on U.S. Hwy. 62 from Lawton, storms near the northern end of our target range quickly congealed and squalled out. We watched Spotternet icons bail south on U.S. Hwy. 83, converging on the Childress, TX area, where a storm near the southern end of our target was showing promising signs of rotation. The fields around Altus were shiny with standing water, and we were justifiably concerned about going off pavement. We headed south from Gould to Eldorado, where we decided to attempt an intercept on the ex-Childress storm, now crossing the Red River. Rather than heading northeast on OK-6, we chanced E1750 Road because it was marked as “paved” on Roads of Oklahoma. (It was, for all but one mile.) We paused briefly at a service station near Elmer, OK, to watch the storm approach from our southwest, encountering numerous other chasers at the intersection with U.S. Hwy. 283. With no east option out of Elmer, we hedged north and then east on OK-5.

We stopped on N2080 Rd and watched the supercell approach. Tornado warnings began to blare from our weather radio, but all we could see beneath the “wedding cake” and beaver tail was murk.

The Elmer-Tipton storm at  about 5:42 p.m., after the tornado warning was issued, but before we could see the tornado.

The Elmer-Tipton storm at about 5:42 p.m., after the tornado warning was issued, but before we could see the tornado.

Then, suddenly, there it was, emerging from the rain like a wraith:
The Elmer - Tipton tornado emerging from the rain at 5:46 p.m

The Elmer – Tipton tornado emerging from the rain at 5:46 p.m.

I stood behind our Prius V., attempting to tripod my camcorder. I was so mesmerized by the sight that I failed to perceive the giant hail cratering the ground around me. (White streaks can be seen in the photo above.) A baseball exploded on the ground by my feet, and my husband’s frantic admonitions finally registered. I ducked under the open hatch, taking my camcorder with me. I couldn’t risk running around to the driver’s side door, so I simply climbed into the boot of our Prius V and pulled the hatch closed behind me. From there, it was an awkward crawl over Steve W. in the back seat, up to the driver’s seat. In my haste, I left the camcorder back in the boot, so unfortunately my video ended there. I contented myself with sending a tweet or two from my seat. My husband, however, managed to get some nice shots, which can be seen in this summary:

When the tornado was about 3/4 mi away, we decided to reposition a few miles east. Our car stopped 2 mi W of Tipton, while Jeff S. and Mark S. stopped about 1.5 mi W of us, near the North Fork Red River bridge. They were actually much closer to the tornado as it cross OK-5; Jeff S. claimed he could hear the “waterfall” sound as the white cone passed them:

From our vantage point, I’m fairly certain that we witnessed the formation of a brief, second funnel to the northeast of the primary tornado.

I’ll be curious to see whether any of the mobile radar data collected this day supports this second tornado. The damage survey (conducted the following day) doesn’t seem to:

From Tipton, we followed the hordes east on OK-5C to Manitou, then north on U.S. Hwy. 183, then east on U.S. Hwy. 62 again. Every time I glanced back over my shoulder at the hook area of the supercell, all I saw was a rotund, turquoise curtain of rain. According to the surveyed track above, however, the tornado continued to hypotenuse ENE from Tipton to Snyder, OK, where it finally dissipated.

Our group determined that it would probably be better to drop south to the next storm in the line, which was headed for Grandfield, TX. From Indiahoma, we dropped south to Chattanooga, watched an intermediate storm gust out from near the intersection of OK-36 and OK-5, then finally made a last stand at Randlett before calling it a night. On our way back via Duncan, we heard reports of a new tornado near Geronimo, generated by the ex-Elmer storm.

05-23-2015: Mini-supercell bust near Alex, OK, flooding in Purcell Chase partners: Dan D., D3
We had basically blown off Saturday’s chase prospects because it looked like the primary target (vicinity of Lubbock, TX) was too far away. We were quite astonished later when Jeff S. called us to report a large tornado in progress near Minco, as seen on television. As we switched on our TV, another touched down near Newcastle, just west of Norman. Mini-supercells (a.k.a. low-topped supercells) were developing all across south central Oklahoma in advance of an approaching MCS. We jumped in our car and intercepted a couple of these diminutive supercells down the line, one near Blanchard, and another near Alex, OK, only to watch them shrivel as they were undercut by the gust front surging out ahead of the slow-moving MCS. D3 was a very good sport, watching the rain and lightning from his car seat. We didn’t want to stray too far from home on his account, so we stuck a fork in our chase a little earlier than usual and headed back to Norman via OK-39. The route took us through Purcell, where we encountered some pretty serious street flooding. I was afraid our Prius V might stall out; in some places the water as as deep as 8 inches. We trailed some taller vehicles to gauge the water depth, and made it back to I-35 without incident.

As the evening progressed, the MCS all but stalled out over over us, dropping 6″ of rain at our house. We heard of flooding all over Norman, particularly in East Norman close to Lake Thunderbird. One of our favorite local restaurants, Clear Bay Cafe, posted on FB that they were closed due to flooding. They are only open during the summer, and I imagine this is a season-ender for them. Some of our friends also found water intruding into their homes overnight. Our house is located partway up a hillside, so we had no issues at our house. However, the land just to our east was recently graded for construction of a new subdivision, and tons of bare soil washed downhill, filled our streets with red mud, and narrowed Dave Blue Creek. In the image below, you can see some of the construction equipment in the background.

Clarifications & corrections regarding the burning car photo

Sadly, at least one person perished today in an incident involving a car fire inside the dock area of the National Weather Center. A photograph I took of the burning vehicle has been retweeted hundreds of times and appeared on a number of major news outlets accompanied by information of varying accuracy. I want to set the record straight about a couple of things I’ve heard and read regarding the image.

1. I didn’t actually witness the incident. At about 3:35 p.m., I came out of my 4th floor NWC office to refill my tea kettle, and noticed a group of people, including my husband, looking and pointing at something outside the bay windows on the northeast side of the building. I could see smoke billowing from somewhere southeast of the building, but couldn’t see the source, and decided to look out the window on the end of the east wing. When I got there, I fully expected to see a grass fire on Hwy. 9 (as often happens when people carelessly flick cigarette butts out their car windows). Instead I was astonished to see this scene in our own dock area:

2. I didn’t break any rules or disobey any instructions to get the image. As I took the photo, the PA finally chimed on: “May I have your attention, please. An unsafe condition has been reported on the east side of the building. Please move toward the center of the building.” For those not familiar with the NWC, it is an L-shaped building with wings pointing toward the north and east, and an atrium area at the elbow. I tweeted the image as I was walking away from the east window, toward the atrium, because I knew all my colleagues in other parts of the building would be wondering what the ambiguous “unsafe condition” was. I wanted to give them a way to see what was happening without having to look for themselves.

3. The image is indeed mine. My husband, who was standing right next to me, took his own photo within seconds of mine, also tweeted it, and it was also used by a number of news outlets. It looks nearly identical, but some details (such as the position of the police officer standing just outside the gate) are different.

4. The radar trucks in the upper left part of the image are SMART-Rs, not DOWs. SMART-Rs (Shared Mobile Atmospheric Teaching and Research Radars) operate at C-band and are jointly owned and operated by OU, NSSL, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. DOWs (Doppler on Wheels) operate at X-band and are owned and operated by the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado. Although the two types of radars are used for similar severe storms research (and both operated together in VORTEX2), they represent two separate research groups.

5. The building was never evacuated. We were advised to move to the interior and shelter in place. This was likely done to prevent anyone trying to evacuate through the dock area.

6. I don’t know any more than you do about what happened. The only verifiable facts are that the car rammed through the gate (as is evident in the photo), the car burned, and one (male) person died (stated by Norman FD to several local media outlets). As of this writing, more than six hours after the incident, the bomb squad is still working on the burnt-out car. Beyond that, I consider any information about details, cause, motive, or extenuating circumstances to be only rumors and speculation. I’m satisfied to let the investigators do their jobs and notify the next of kin (who are doubtless in shock). I await a formal statement from OU Public Affairs about this incident.

2015-03-25: Moore, OK tornado and damage survey

Wednesday’s non-chase consisted of me looking up from my son’s bowl of mac and cheese, and seeing a tornado out the window. Okay, there was a little more to it than that. But lately, the storms have considerately come to me when I can’t chase. It’s one of the reasons I live in Norman!

I was aware of the SPC’s moderate risk for severe weather, but I had all but dismissed the tornado risk based on the crashing cold front setup. That setup had burned me too many times in the past. I’ve driven hundreds of miles just to watch nascent storms wither as a relentless southward surge of cold air sliced the legs out from beneath them, leaving me low and gas and without much to show for it. Instead, Wednesday’s storms latched onto the front and rode it south and east. We followed coverage on a couple of the local news networks, watching with rapt fascination as a storm that appeared postfrontal and undercut produced a 30-second funnel cloud near El Reno, OK.

Moore, Oklahoma tornado on 2015-03-25

As seen from near my home in southeast Norman.

Fast forward about an hour: the same storm marched onward to Moore, and in helicopter video, power flashes erupted all over the I-35 corridor. My husband, who had been admiring the mammatus under the anvil in our driveway, suddenly charged into the house, shouting, “I can see it!” I grabbed my son and we dashed across the street. To the north, between two houses, a tapered funnel cloud was clearly visible. I didn’t have time to grab my “good” camera, only got a few grainy pictures with my iPhone. This counts as my son’s first (ex-utero) tornado.

As the damage reports filtered in, and the complexity of the situation became clear, I felt inspired to email some people in the know about participating in the damage survey the next day. It may come as a surprise to some that I’ve never actually participated in a tornado damage survey before. I resolved this year that I would assist in at least one in order to learn firsthand, from the experts, how it was done. By the next morning, I had an invitation. Doug Speheger of the Norman NWS-WFO was gracious enough to let me join his team as they surveyed part of the preliminary track. Rick Smith, the WCM for Norman, tasked us with characterizing the event and focusing in directionality of wind damage indicators (DIs). Signals of a mixed-mode (tornado / straight-line wind) event were already evident in video and reports from the day before.

The Moore EOC whiteboard

The Moore EOC whiteboard listing preliminary damage reports as they came in the evening before.

We started the morning at the Moore EOC, where we conferred with EOC staff. Doug divided up the preliminary track among three teams. Instead of dividing the track into equal thirds, our team took a relatively short but more densely-populated segment near the middle, where local officials had tagged a couple of possible EF2/3 candidate structures. The other two teams took the remaining two, more rural sections of the track, with the added task of determining its start and end points.

I was worried that I might not have the training necessary to contribute to the survey, but instead of clipboards and cameras, we went into the field armed with a pair of iPads. The NWS uses a newbie-friendly, menu-driven app called the Damage Assessment Toolkit (DAT). We snapped pictures of damage, characterized the structures, typed in our comments, and uploaded the data points over the network to the NWS. Rick Smith said it was fun tracking our progress, watching as our data points gradually mapped out the track on screens back in the Norman office.

As we initially drove through the neighborhood northwest of I-35 and 4th St. around 9 a.m., I was surprised by how much cleanup had already been done. The streets were already clear and passable. Piles of branches and shingles had already been hauled to curbs, and some of those piles disappeared over the course of the survey. A handful of heavily damaged houses were marked with a bright orange “X,” indicating that the search-and-rescue teams had paid a visit. Workers were actively moving large, heavy debris out of yards and driveways even as we went door to door. We were actually in a race against time to document the “raw” damage before it was cleaned up.

Crumpled KOMA radio tower in Moore, OK

Of the three ex-KOMA (now KOKC) radio towers, this was the only one left standing, and bent over at that.

We entered some data points in “drive-by” mode; for others, we got out and walked gingerly among roof shingles, shards of glass, and boards with protruding nails. An active hum emanated from the entire damage zone. Chainsaws growled, generators purred, and helicopters circled overhead. News crews, police, and city workers were everywhere. Vans filled with ServeMoore volunteers (many of them teenagers, released from class by Moore Public Schools) went from house to house, offering cleanup help. A cherry-red Coca-Cola delivery truck cruised up and down the streets, the driver handing out bottled water. We overheard the neighborhood mail carrier telling the resident of an “orange X” house that she could apply for a free PO box to use until her house was repaired. She later told a reporter that she had “had it” with Moore after suffering tornado damage three times; she would be moving away soon for good.

We documented a shed blown onto its side, a section of roofing lofted two or three blocks (recognizable from the shingle color), damage to the three ex-KOMA radio towers (two fell down, the one left standing folded 1/3 of the way down at its guy point). Even as we went about our duties, we were aware that the residents were grappling with an unexpected and upsetting interruption in their lives. As a home owner, I empathized with the loss of houses and the scattering of neighbors. After almost two decades with the NWS, Doug is well-practiced in performing damage surveys, and he asked his questions with sensitivity. “Were you here when this happened? Did you have enough warning? Was anyone hurt? We’re glad you’re okay.”

Checking the damage

Tiffany Meyer (left) and Doug Speheger examine the bottom of a collapsed wall in a home near NW 2nd & Arnold Sts in Moore.

We found two particularly intense damage examples that might have qualified as EF2 or greater damage but for some mitigating factor. In one case, a home’s roof had been lifted off, but the failure point was evident. A carport, bolted to the roofline, had been lifted from the driveway by the storm’s winds and peeled off the roof as it blew away. In another, the exterior walls of a home had all collapsed, leaving the interior walls standing like an oversized wine bottle divider. That type of damage might have merited an EF3 rating, but closer examination revealed that the anchor bolts were spaced 8-10 feet apart and only driven about 2 in into the concrete walls. In both cases, the rating stayed at EF1.

It was difficult to differentiate the wind and tornado damage in some areas. For the most part, the winds had moved debris from west to east. We found a few small zones (about half a block in size) where the damage was relatively intense, and clearly convergent. My impression was that we were dealing with a wide swath of mostly straight-line wind damage, with a few small tornadic spinups lasting only a few seconds. A few structures would need to be examined in greater detail.

Compiling the damage survey info in the NWS-Norman WFO

Reconvening with Rick Smith (left) in the WFO, it was decided to announce the finding of EF1 damage and continued investigation.

We returned to Norman around 3 p.m. along with one of the two other survey teams, and related our impressions to Rick Smith and the rest of the office. Based on our report, Rick sent out the following tweets “in time for the four-o’clock news”:

Thanks again to the NWS office in Norman for letting me help make the news!

Edit: Thanks to Doug Speheger for correcting the my interpretation of the “orange X” markings.

Update, 3/30/2015: After some spot-checking of a few structures and a follow-up meeting on 30 March 2015, it was decided to upgrade the house at 2nd & Arnold, as well as a few others, to EF2. NWS-Norman released this damage contour map that afternoon:

Note that this map is still preliminary and could change further!

Update, 4/3/2015: Jim LaDue, another damage survey participant with much more experience than I, conveys his detailed thoughts on this event here.

A novel worth chasing

Looking for a convective literary morsel to test out that new e-reader you got for Christma-solsti-festi-kwanz-ukah? Here’s a suggestion: Supercell by H. W. “Buzz” Bernard.

You need only read the capsule summary to know that it ain’t great literature. It’s a thriller, and it doesn’t purport to be anything more.

What impressed me about this book was how much it got right about chasing. The torment of being torn between two equally favorable (and mutually exclusive) chase targets. Second-guessing yourself when you see other chasers streaming toward the target you rejected. The wisecracking, know-it-all ride-along who regards meteorology as little more than charlatanism, and who relishes rubbing it in your face when you get it wrong. The slow-rolling Christmas tree of modern chaser convergence. The frustrating ennui of the down days. The best setup tantalizing you from the progs, one day after the end of chase-cation. The descriptions of the interplay between different entities pertinent to storm chasing (NWS, SPC, the media, and various different flavors of storm chasers) is more or less correct. The author clearly did his homework, and he acknowledges contributions from some well-known chasers and meteorologists at the end of the book.

I can’t say I was very impressed with the characters, who are mostly cut whole from cultural stereotypes. But, I still enjoyed this read. If you’re suffering from SDS, Supercell might just be the shot in the arm you need to get you to next chase season.

SLS in Madtown

In early November, I flew back to Madison, Wisconsin for the 27th AMS Conference on Severe Local Storms (or “SLS”, as we call it). For those who don’t know, I got my B.S. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science from UW-Madison. It’s been more than a decade since I packed up my research intern cubicle at SSEC, and I was excited to get back. Experiencing Madison from a high-star hotel within a block of the Wisconsin state capitol dome and State Street was quite a different experience from being stacked, cordwood-style, with other undergraduate students in Chadbourne Hall.

I was much more involved in this conference than I have been in previous ones. This was the first SLS conference on whose program committee I served. That meant I got to review nearly 50 abstracts, helping stratify them into oral and poster slots, and had input on the daily schedule. In addition to our professional contributions, my husband and I also coordinated the informal (and infamous) Video Night for the third time. The conference co-chairs elected to forgo a formal banquet in favor of a come-and-go icebreaker with heavy appetizers, a practice that I favor continuing, because it allows attendees to interact with more than seven people at a round table over the course of the evening.

Contentwise, this SLS conference program was as good as ever. A couple of the highlights:

A note to nonmeteorologists who are interested in severe weather research, particularly students considering a career in that area: Browse the conference program. Watch some of the talks.* Read the extended abstracts and examine the posters. A little more than a decade ago, it wasn’t possible for people outside the conference to access the research presented there (unless you could somehow get your hands on a limited-edition preprint volume). Now, almost the entire content of the conference is available online for public perusal. So, take advantage of it! Get a taste of what scientific research really looks like.

* Keep in mind that the talks are often a 12-minute summary of two or more years of research, coding, and mental exertion. Not all details, caveats, and nuances can be included. (That’s what seminars and peer-reviewed manuscripts are for!)