29 January 2011

Rant: Tornado types/Difference in opinion

Alright, the tone of this blog may be more of an educational rant than anything so bear with me..... The human race is a complex and diverse race. No two people are the exact same, therefore no two people will ever see things the exact same way. So what does this have to do with tornadoes or severe weather?

Our opinions will differ from the size and severity of an event. Some may call a supercell with a brief rope tornado as being  an epic chase, while others will be disappointed knowing the potential that was there. It is what you make it out to be. Personally as long as I am out there experiencing Mother Nature I will always have peace of mind. Case and point... May 19th, 2010. Adam, Ben and I chased SW OK this day. I actually made the forecast to chase around the Anadarko/Chickasha area and (maybe stubbornly) stuck with that target. For the longest time we watched 2 supercells with overshooting tops and SN tornado reports popping up 50 miles to our north. I just felt things would start popping to the south and they did. However the only storm of the day NOT to produce a tornado is one we actually ended up on. After the chase and seeing 1,000 videos of the tornadoes up north, Adam and Ben were feeling pretty low. I wasn't feel good, but I certainly wasn't in the depths of depression or regret. I got to see a rotating supercell, a couple wall clouds, experience hail, and was treated to an impressive lightning display. Sure it wasn't a tornado, but it doesn't always have to be. To some, a chase is a massive fail if they don't get the 2 mile wide wedge. To others, the chase is a success if storms forms. It all depends what YOU are going for personally.

This brings me to my main point.... How does one determine the type of tornado they are actually seeing? Everyone knows when you are on a chase and in the vicinity of a supercell that emotions and adrenaline are running at all time highs. When that tornado drops and sustains itself it seems like nowadays everything is reported as large and extremely dangerous. I take issue with this because it is misleading and causes more issues than the chaser can imagine. Let me put on the NWS/EM cap on for a second....

DRAMATIZATION: There is a moderate risk for my area, conditions look good for tornadoes (some strong), and I take a look at all my resources I have available for that day. I coordinate with different offices, check into the ham net, and take a look at Spotter Network to see where people are setting up. I may even call some local chasers I know will be in my area. Time progresses and storms start to develop and take supercellular characteristics. Suddenly wall cloud reports start flooding in as the storm looms 50 miles away from the office (which is located on the outskirts of a pretty big population center.) Things start to get hectic. Time to start preparing for the incoming storm. Time to send out the fire/police spotters, activating nets, and evacuating outdoor events. A couple of funnel cloud reports start coming in as the storm is now 35 miles away and moving in this direction. It will be here in an hour, time to ponder issuing a tornado warning for our area. Suddenly reports start flooding in.... "tornado in progress" "Multiple vortex tornado" "LARGE tornado" By now the storm is 20 miles away and closing in fast, if I am a forecaster for the NWS I am monitoring every available source from spotter network to direct contact with ham nets. Spotter Network reports are claiming a large tornado is in progress while ham reports are seeing a large lowering with intermittent spin ups. Finally as the storm closes to within 10 miles, both sources are adamant in reporting a large tornado moving toward the town. Time to pull the trigger and use very suggestive text (I.E tornado emergency.) The storm passes over with some gusty winds and hail but no tornado. Is this a warning success or failure? If I was the NWS I would think I did my job because I took what I was seeing on radar, coupled it with what I saw on Spotter Network, and what I heard from my spotters out there. Each source was reliable and I did what I thought was the right measures of safety to take. The NWS can't possibly be blamed for this can they? I am going to say NO. The responsibility lies with the chaser/spotter. In this case, the large tornado is pictured below (remember this is just a hypothetical dramatization of an event that CAN happen)

Now is this a large tornado? In my opinion it is not. Let me explain as to why this may be reported as large. Say we have been tracking this storm for an hour now and have gotten up close and personal with the area of interest. We've seen this rotation go from a broad unorganized mess to a tight violently rotating mass. In the chasers mind this storm is primed to put down something major. What is okay to report in this situation? Do I report my thoughts about what could happen or only what is happening? The answer is what is happening. Drop an icon stating you are viewing a large wall cloud with strong rotation and where you are and where it is and where it is going. So now the anticipation builds, you may glance down at the map and see a large town in the path and start to get concerned.  In you mind you need to do everything you can to warn this town so you might be inclined to use suggestive wording and tend to exaggerate a bit. Your intentions are good but in reality you aren't doing much good to anybody when you let emotions take over your common sense.

Someone reported this tornado above as a large and extremely dangerous tornado. Is it large? Maybe to someone who has never seen a tornado before. All tornadoes can be extremely dangerous so I have never quite understood the notion to add that into a warning text. The same with the word destructive. A lot of times though when those words are uttered it causes the NWS to issue strongly worded warnings/statements which contributes to the some of the criticism received about the use of tornado emergency.

This is not a finger pointing or "greater than thou" blog post where I am condemning the NWS/EMs or other chasers and spotters. I have been in the chaser position before and also have had many discussions about this with different NWS personnel (maybe some can chime in?) While I have never inaccurately reported what I saw, I have been wrong on chases before with what I am seeing. The key is if you don't know then don't report it. Pertaining to the discussion my advice is to simply report a tornado. Report where you are, where you see the tornado, and where is it going.

Sticking with the topic of tornado types I want to post some images below and interject my opinion on what type of tornado it is and how it should be reported. REMEMBER THIS IS ONLY MY OPINION, TAKE IT FOR WHAT IT IS WORTH!

Tornado #1 -
Can this be classified as a large tornado? No. Can this be classified as dangerous? Absolutely, but should the spotter make that call? I am not so sure. This is an elephant trunk tornado spawned out of a large bowl shaped wall cloud with strong rotation. It was given an EF2 rating and maintained its' shape and size through its' duration.

Tornado #2
What about this tornado? Can it be classified as a large tornado? I am still going to go with no. It is pretty decent sized tornado and bigger than tornado #1 but in my opinion it is not LARGE.

It lies all within the eye of the beholder. Technically all tornadoes are large to the human eye because compared to you and me, a tornado is quite large. However, how do we draw the line between small tornado/large tornado/wedge tornado. The easy one is the wedge tornado which I will hint on below, but where do you draw the line between what's a small tornado (#1 and the picture above that) to a medium sized tornado (#2) to a large tornado pictured below.

Tornado #3
This is what I would classify as a large tornado. It is filling the sky, obvious large shape and certainly capable of producing widespread damage. Would you expect tornado #1 to do the same amount of damage as tornado #3? I know when you are out there in the heat of the chase you won't have time to think back about previous tornadoes, but I pose this question. Would you report tornado #1 as you would report tornado #3? Would you feel foolish calling tornado #1 a large tornado only to have #3 drop right after #1? How would you report #3 if you reported #1 as a large tornado? Would you call it a wedge? You would be wrong.

A wedge tornado is simply described as a tornado that is wider than it is tall. Can you say any of the tornadoes I have provided are wider than they are tall? If you say yes I would strongly disagree with you.

Could any of these tornadoes be considered wedge tornadoes? I would say no. They are of a large size but are not wedge tornadoes and should not be reported as such. So you may ask what IS a wedge tornado?


So to recap.... It is important to accurately report what is going on. If you don't know specifics, give a general description. Don't be afraid to report if you are confident, but don't abuse the word "wedge" or "large." Thanks for reading!


  1. I agree that terms like wedge and "dangerous" are overused, but that said, there is a time and place where they are needed. Any tornado is by definition, violently rotating, but when used -properly- the added emphasis in report from a chaser or spotter is absolutely necessary. I know you remember my June 7 2008 SN report, with a large wedge with debris in the air heading into a populated area, adding "large" or "destructive" to the report was needed. All tornadoes are dangerous, and while some can't decipher the difference, there is a big one between a brief spin up / weak tornado that may take down some tree branches, or a wedge that could potentially level a suburb.

  2. Lies! Chicago doesn't get "large" or "destructive" tornadoes. Areas east of I-39 and North of I-80 are off-limits to big'ns. 1967 and 1990 are LIES!

  3. I agree. Obviously you were confident in what you were reporting and certainly weren't wrong to use the language you used. In cases like those it is almost a no brainer. But how would you have reported the first tornado we saw on 5/22? Since you are an experienced chaser with a history of good reports I have no doubt that you would be on the money. But let's talk about Joe Rookiechaser who happened to pulled in behind you and I. You may say a tornado is on the ground 1 mile to my NW while Joe RC may say an extremely large tornado is on the ground. I am not sure exactly if the NWS will average the reports (6 of us say a tornado while 2 say a LARGE tornado) or go with the most extreme situation. G2G shear is misleading which is why the NWS needs us out there but if the NWS couples 120 kts of g2g shear along with a report of a LARGE tornado then this is where the education needs to come in.

  4. In cases aside from that of June 7 2008 I generally have just used the word "tornado" as you said above. I didn't submit any reports 5/22, but would have just said "tornado". Even though ingredients were off the charts, and I had high confidence in significant tornadoes that day (as referenced by my 'this is going to be epic" text as the storm went up) there was not enough evidence to suggest anything otherwise with the initial stovepipe.

    July 22nd in Wisconsin is probably my best example. That first tornado was too far away to note ground contact, but it appeared very likely that a tornado was in progress: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_iV1JMMgTje4/TE9Keurq8KI/AAAAAAAAAxE/_-qsWf1qFMs/s1600/4825895402_f733c1ae80_b.jpg

    but even so, I couldn't confirm ground contact so I simply sent in the funnel report, and added an addendum that there could very well be a tornado in progress but distance and rain were inhibiting my confirmation.

    Then, the final tornado was much more obvious, and while my adrenaline was pumping after a two month tornado drought, a simple "tornado 4 miles north moving southeast etc." sufficed.

  5. It seems that many people are so eager to see a large tornado (a whole other can of worms...typically I prefer seeing a photogenic elephant trunk or barrel tornado to a dusty, messy wedge) that I hear even smallish tornadoes being called wedges. I saw the Greensburg tornado--that was a wedge. It was so big, so unbelievable. What makes me laugh (or cringe) is when I hear chasers call something like the Campo tornado or the Goodnight tornado a wedge.

    Your comments on the whole NWS perspective is interesting; good points there.

    PS: I so wish I could have seen the Bowdle tornado...the footage your group got was outstanding!

  6. Thanks Rebekah!

    I only wish Greensburg was like Bowdle since the Bowdle tornado stayed mainly over open country and missed a town. There was significant damage to a few farmsteads but it's a lot better than the whole town wiped out.