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Photo story: America’s deadliest year for tornadoes

2011 was one for the record books. See how NOAA science and forecasts played a role.
May 19, 2016
Tornado as it moved west of Manitou, Oklahoma on November 7, 2011.

The tornado outbreaks of 2011 were unprecedented. Destruction to life and property occurred in more than a dozen states from the Central Plains and Missouri, throughout the Southeast and as far north as Massachusetts. In total, 1,691 tornadoes claimed 553 lives, making it the deadliest tornado year since 1936.

NOAA forecasters are on the job monitoring, predicting and warning for severe weather 24 hours a day every day of the year. Explore, in pictures, how NOAA forecasts severe storms, warns the public, cracks mysteries behind why tornadoes form, and built a program to make families and businesses “storm ready.”

Joplin, Missouri: Moments before May 22, 2011, tornado
NOAA weather satellites are often able to provide forecasters with the earliest indication of cloud systems that have potential to become extreme storms. When a tornado threat emerges, NOAA places our geostationary satellites into rapid scan mode where  imagery is captured every 5-15 minutes, instead of every 30 minutes, to provide forecasters the extra essential information they need for rapidly evolving situations. Pictured here is a satellite view over Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, moments before the EF5 tornado began its path of destruction. (EF5 is the strongest such rating for a tornado).
Joplin, Missouri: Moments before May 22, 2011 tornado
NOAA weather satellites are often able to provide forecasters with the earliest indication of cloud systems that have potential to become extreme storms. When a tornado threat emerges, NOAA places our geostationary satellites into rapid scan mode where imagery is captured every 5-15 minutes, instead of every 30 minutes, to provide forecasters the extra essential information they need for rapidly evolving situations. Pictured here is a satellite view over Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, moments before the EF5 tornado began its path of destruction. (EF5 is the strongest such rating for a tornado). (NOAA)
Joplin, Missouri: Animated radar imagery, as seen during tornado strike
Thanks to improvements in weather radars, severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are becoming more detailed and more accurate. Doppler radar helps NOAA National Weather Service forecasters see a storm’s  circulation before a tornado forms, and track tornadoes such as this one that devastated Joplin in 2011. New dual pol technology installed since then helps forecasters tell the difference between precipitation and debris that’s lofted in the air by a tornado, providing helpful confirmation they can pass along in their warnings to the public. (NOAA)
Joplin, Missouri: Animated radar imagery, as seen during tornado strike
Thanks to improvements in weather radar, severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are becoming more detailed and more accurate. Doppler radar helps NOAA National Weather Service forecasters see a storm’s circulation before a tornado forms, and track tornadoes such as this one that devastated Joplin in 2011. New dual pol technology installed since then helps forecasters tell the difference between precipitation and debris that’s lofted in the air by a tornado, providing helpful confirmation they can pass along in their warnings to the public. (NOAA)
Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Tornado damage survey teams determine tornado ratings 
Following a tornado, NOAA dispatches forecasters to survey damage and determine its rating. Following the April 26-28, 2011 tornado outbreak in the southeastern United States, NOAA forecasters Jim LaDue and Kevin Scharfenberg provided on-the-ground reports which, combined with information from aerial reconnaissance and emergency manager reports, determined the tornado that affected this location was in fact an EF4 rated storm. (EF4 is the second strongest such rating for a tornado, behind EF5).
Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Tornado damage survey teams determine tornado ratings
Following a tornado, NOAA dispatches forecasters to survey damage and determine its rating. Following the April 26-28, 2011, tornado outbreak in the southeastern United States, NOAA forecasters Jim LaDue and Kevin Scharfenberg provided on-the-ground reports which, combined with information from aerial reconnaissance and emergency manager reports, determined the tornado that affected this location was in fact an EF4 rated storm. (EF4 is the second strongest such rating for a tornado, behind EF5). (NOAA)
Joplin, Missouri: Aerial imagery, before and after the storm 
"Before-and-after" images like this one (before is on the left) are critically important in helping federal and local officials and emergency responders understand a tornado's damage and what hazards still exist. Shortly after the May 22, 2011, Joplin, Missouri, tornado, NOAA dispatched its King Air 350CER aircraft, equipped with specialized remote sensing equipment, on a mission to collect aerial photography from 5,000 feet.
Joplin, Missouri: Aerial imagery, before and after the storm
"Before-and-after" images like this one (before is on the left) are critically important in helping federal and local officials and emergency responders understand a tornado's damage and what hazards still exist. Shortly after the May 22, 2011, Joplin, Missouri, tornado, NOAA dispatched its King Air 350CER aircraft, equipped with specialized remote sensing equipment, on a mission to collect aerial photography from 5,000 feet. (NOAA)
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
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. (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 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. (NOAA)

2011 to today: Despite timely and accurate forecasts, too many lives have been lost or irrevocably harmed from extreme weather events such as tornadoes. Born out of this tragedy came a renewed commitment to build a nation more prepared for imminent natural disasters, resilient to future change, with a NOAA National Weather Service second to none. Communities, businesses, and homes across America are taking part in NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation initiative. Learn how your workplace or school can become an Weather Ready Nation Ambassador.