Monday, May 18, 2009

Kirksville, MO tornado environment on 5/13/09

Sorry I haven't had time to post any case studies for awhile. But with 3 deaths from tornadoes in northern Missouri last Wedensday 5/13/09, I decided to make time for a short analysis of that event.

The tornadoes were rain-wrapped at times (see the photos above), and the most intense damage was rated EF-2 by the National Weather Service. A good environment for generating significant tornadoes aided the supercell that produced the 3 tornadoes in sequence from near Milan to Kirksville.

The surface map at late afternoon showed a low (see surface map above) moving eastward across northern Missouri, with south-southeast winds just east of the low and a retreating outflow boundary from morning storms that had moved across the area. Farther southwest, surface winds had a westerly component. Storms on radar began to build at mid afternoon near the low and then southwestward in advance of a surface front. But the tornadic storm (see arrow on radar images above) remained near a focal point just east of the surface low, and could take advantage of southeasterly low-level flow and increased storm-relative helicity (SRH).

RUC model analysis soundings at Chillicothe (CDJ) and Kirksville (IRK) highlighted the dramatic difference in low-level shear (see the sounding plots above). At CDJ, although MLCAPE was quite large (near 3000 J/kg) and deep layer shear was favorable for supercells (around 40 kts), southwest winds made for a small/straight/unidirectional hodograph in low-levels with small SRH. In contrast, at IRK east of the surface low and outflow boundary, low-level wind shear was quite large as a result of southeast surface winds and stronger flow just above ground, with a looping hodograph and big SRH (>400 m2/s2!). Even though MLCAPE was less than 2/3rds that on the CDJ model sounding, the combination of very strong low-level shear and strong deep layer (> 50 kts) in the Kirksville area really made a difference!

Saddled with an important mid-afternoon meeting, Shawna and I were only able to make it to a supercell east-northeast of Chillicothe (see the cell southwest of the Kirksville supercell near CDJ on the 5:02 pm radar image above), which was frustrating. Although the Chillicothe storm had a lowering and some decent supercell structure, the roughly 50 mile distance between supercell locations certainly made for distinctively different storms and tornado potential.

- Jon Davies 5/18/09