Reflections on the deadly tornadoes in central Oklahoma

By Logan Dawson, SOARS Protégé​​

Radar image
Radar from May 20, 2013, showing the supercell thunderstorm and deadly tornado that touched down in Moore, Oklahoma.
Credit: National Weather Service

Severe thunderstorms needed to happen during the MPEX field campaign for it to be a success. I never had this thought until after several deadly tornadoes tore across central Oklahoma in May while we were studying the storms.

On Friday, May 17, conditions for severe thunderstorms looked favorable, meaning they were likely, so the ground teams from Purdue, Colorado State, and the National Severe Storms Laboratory met in southwest Kansas and prepared to launch weather balloons across the Great Plains over the next several days. Ryan Sobash (lead nowcaster and PhD candidate from the University of Oklahoma) and I prepared for several late afternoons and evenings of nowcasting.

We didn't collect much data on Saturday, May 18 - our first day launching balloons. A few weak thunderstorms formed in the area near Dodge City, Kansas, but none of them fully strengthened into a large storm.

But over the following two days in central Oklahoma there were supercell thunderstorms, strong thunderstorms that often produce tornadoes and other severe weather. On May 19, the ground teams launched balloons around a storm that produced an EF-3 tornado north of Oklahoma City and a storm that produced an EF-4 tornado east of Norman, Oklahoma. The EF-4 tornado took the lives of two people.

On May 20, the ground teams collected data around a supercell thunderstorm that produced two weak tornadoes south of Oklahoma City. While the storm didn't cause much damage, there was a much more devastating impact further north where a tornado touched down in Moore, Oklahoma, devastating homes, businesses, and schools. Maintaining focus on nowcasting the storm further south for our research was extremely challenging while the tornado was on the ground in Moore. Ryan and I could see live video of the tornado from a news helicopter, and we knew that people's lives were in jeopardy.

The stress and anxiety I felt during this time gave me a little perspective on how difficult these severe weather outbreak days can be for National Weather Service forecasters who monitor these storms and issue the warnings. On a 'regular' weather day, their work often goes unnoticed, but they should really be commended and appreciated for their service to the public, especially during such emotionally stressful situations. Even though I consider the 24 deaths due to the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado far too many, the death toll could have been much higher without warnings from forecasters.

The thunderstorm activity in central Oklahoma on those two days was good for data collection during the MPEX project. However, it's difficult to be pleased with the data collection when there was such a huge impact on human life. I guess we just have to take solace in the fact that this field campaign is working toward better predictions of severe weather. Hopefully, our data can eventually help severe weather forecasters provide more advanced warnings that may prevent such loss of life in the future.

Logan Dawson
Logan Dawson is a third-year SOARS protégé and a graduate student studying atmospheric science at Purdue University.