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Blog: Remembering the tornado outbreaks of 2011

By Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Administrator
May 20, 2016 This spring, we’ve seen powerful tornadoes touch down in several states across the nation. Stunning viral images on social media of recent events, such as the May 7 twister in Wray, Colorado, which reached peak winds of 130 mph, are reminders from Mother Nature that no community is invulnerable to extreme weather.
Image showing damage from the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011.

Five years ago, an unprecedented 1,691 tornadoes claimed 553 lives including the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri. The first siren in town went off at 5:11 p.m. Twenty-three minutes later, the tornado made its initial touchdown, then traveled 22.1 miles devastating everything in its path. Tragically, 158 people died, and more than 1,000 were left injured.

The Joplin tornado was an event which prompted NOAA to forge a renewed national commitment to build a Weather-Ready Nation.

A timeline of events for the super tornado outbreaks of 2011.
2011 tornado outbreaks
A timeline of events for the super tornado outbreaks of 2011. (NOAA)

Forecasts and warnings, no matter how accurate, are only effective when acted upon. The 2011 tornadoes sparked a national conversation that challenged us to sharpen our understanding of how people react to forecasts and warnings. It became clear: in order to truly build a Weather-Ready Nation, we needed to address how to better communicate risk and prompt life-saving action from communities, businesses, and governments.

Shortly after Joplin, NOAA set out to understand what we needed to change or improve to foster more effective responses to our tornado warnings. We surveyed members of the media and emergency managers (NOAA’s most critical conduits with communicating with the public) and found that words are indeed powerful when it comes to NOAA’s written forecast statements. In addition to maps and radar data, our partners trust the perspectives and intuition of our forecasters. As such, they wanted more pointed messages from our forecasters when they believe a tornado could quickly intensify or change directions.

Understanding the physical science behind how and why storms form is also a priority at NOAA.

What causes a tornado? NOAA research continues
How tornadoes form is still unclear, which is why NOAA researchers conduct field campaigns to uncover answers. Scientists at NOAA laboratories collect data during on-the ground research projects like VORTEX2 (pictured above) to help National Weather Service forecasters better understand the storms that produce tornadoes. A current project, VORTEX Southeast, focuses on the environmental and social factors that make tornadoes in the southeastern United States so deadly. The ultimate goal is to improve warnings so individuals and communities have more time to seek shelter and secure property.
What causes a tornado? NOAA research continues
How tornadoes form is still unclear, which is why NOAA researchers conduct field campaigns like VORTEX Southeast to uncover answers. (NOAA)

One current project underway, VORTEX Southeast, aims to not only understand how environmental factors affect the formation, intensity, structure, and path of tornadoes, but also the best methods for communicating forecast uncertainty to the public. Another project, FACETs (‘Forecasting a Continuum of Environmental Threats’), will allow forecasters to improve upon standard weather watches and warnings, introduce new computer-model predictions for storm hazards, and explore how forecasters can better communicate threats to the public.

The Joplin tornado was an event which prompted NOAA to forge a renewed national commitment to build a Weather-Ready Nation.

We’re also taking significant steps to improve the technology underpinning our forecasts. In 2013, NOAA implemented dual-polarization (“dual-pol”) radar technology. Dual-pol is the most significant enhancement to the nation’s federal weather radar system since Doppler technology was first installed in the early 1990s. Unlike radars of the past, dual-pol can differentiate between rain, hail, smoke and other particles in the air, which help forecasters better predict high-impact weather.

What is dual polarization technology? Why should you care? NOAA scientists answer those questions by using parodies of our favorite commercials.
VIDEO: Dual-pol, explained
What is dual polarization technology? Why should you care? NOAA scientists answer those questions by using parodies of our favorite commercials. (NOAA)

Dual pol technology also allows meteorologists to detect debris lofted into the air by tornadoes. About a month ago, in the early morning of April 7, National Weather Service forecasters in Tallahassee, Florida, saw this kind of debris detected by their radar after they had issued a tornado warning. This indicated a tornado was on the ground and allowed forecasters to update the warnings with specific and vivid descriptions of the threat posed by a confirmed tornado, and warn the community of possible damage in its path.

Joplin, Missouri: Damage surveys confirm a tornado’s path
After NOAA’s aerial team completes its damage survey, scientists can weave together hundreds of individual images to produce an image of a tornado’s path. Pictured above is Joplin, Missouri, following the May 22, 2011, EF-5 tornado. This mile-wide tornado traveled approximately 22 miles on the ground killing 158 people. It was the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. since 1947. According to NOAA economists, the outbreak of Midwest/Southeast tornadoes of May 22-27, 2011, exceeded $9.6 billion in damages.
Joplin, Missouri: Damage surveys confirm a tornado’s path
Joplin, Missouri, following the May 22, 2011, EF-5 tornado. This mile-wide tornado traveled approximately 22 miles on the ground killing 158 people. It was the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. since 1947. (NOAA)

These cutting-edge improvements, along with investments in our supercomputing capabilities, new forecast models and advanced satellite technologies, are supporting our efforts to develop better and more accurate forecasts and better communicate risk to communities in order to build a Weather-Ready Nation. By making critical investments in our workforce, our communications, our technology, and our observational infrastructure, NOAA is poised to provide information to communities around the country to help them make smart and informed decisions when watches and warnings are issued.

 

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, former NASA astronaut and NOAA Chief Scientist, is the NOAA Administrator. Learn more about her lifelong career in science