The March 2 - 3 tornado outbreak: one EF-4, 39 deaths

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:40 PM GMT en Marzo 05, 2012

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A blanket of snow 2 - 4 inches deep fell yesterday on the regions of Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky pounded by deadly tornadoes on Friday, adding to the misery of survivors. The violent tornado rampage killed 39 and injured hundreds more, wreaking property damage that will likely exceed $1 billion. Hardest hit were Kentucky and Southern Indiana, which suffered 21 and 12 dead, respectively. Three were killed in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia. The scale of the outbreak was enormous, with a preliminary total of 139 tornadoes touching down in eleven states, from southern Ohio to Northern Florida. The National Weather Service issued 297 tornado warnings and 388 severe thunderstorm warnings. At one point, 31 separate tornado warnings were in effect during the outbreak, and an area larger than Nebraska--81,000 square miles--received tornado warnings. Tornado watches were posted for 300,000 square miles--an area larger than Texas.


Video 1. Spectacular video of the EF-4 tornado that devastated Henrysville and Marysville, Indiana on March 2, 2012. You can see small satellite vorticies rotating on the side of the main vortex.


Video 2. Another video of the EF-4 tornado that devastated Henrysville and Marysville, Indiana on March 2, 2012, taken from a gas station.

The deadliest and most violent tornado: an EF-4
The deadliest and most violent tornado of the March 2, 2012 outbreak was an EF-4 with winds up to 175 mph that demolished much of Henryville, Chelsea, Marysville, and New Pekin, Indiana. Ten minutes after that tornado demolished much of Henryville, a weaker EF-1 tornado hit the town. The twin tornadoes killed twelve people. The Henryville tornado was the only violent EF-4 tornado of the outbreak.



Figure 1. Radar reflectivity image (top) and Doppler velocity image (bottom) of the two tornadoes that hit Henryville, Indiana on March 2, 2012. The first (rightmost) hook echo on the reflectivity image belonged to the only violent tornado of the outbreak, an EF-4 with winds of 166 - 200 mph. Ten minutes after that tornado demolished much of Henryville, a second tornado hit the town. These tornadoes also caused severe damage to the towns of Chelsea, Marysville, and New Pekin, and killed twelve people.

At least eleven other tornadoes in the outbreak have been classified as EF-3s with winds of 136 - 165 mph. Capitalclimate.com reports that the EF-3 tornadoes that crossed three Eastern Kentucky counties were the first tornadoes that strong ever observed, since tornado records began in 1950. The deadliest of the EF-3 tornadoes hit West Liberty, Kentucky, killing eight. Here's a summary of the deadly tornadoes of the outbreak taken from Wikipedia:

EF-4, 12 deaths, Henrysville, Indiana
EF-3, 8 deaths, West Liberty, Kentucky\
EF-2, 5 deaths, East Bernstadt, Kentucky
EF-3, 4 deaths, Crittenden, Kentucky
EF-3, 2 deaths, Holton, Indiana
EF-3, 3 deaths, Peach Grove, Ohio
EF-3, 2 deaths, Blaine, Kentucky
EF-3, 2 deaths, Salyersville, Kentucky
EF-2, 1 death, Jackson's Gap, Alabama


Figure 2. Damage in West Liberty, Kentucky after the March 2, 2012 EF-3 tornado. Image taken from from a Kentucky National Guard Blackhawk helicopter, while landing in West Liberty, KY (Morgan County).


Figure 3. Radar image of the West Liberty, Kentucky EF-3 tornado of March 2, 2012, showing a classic hook echo. The tornado carved a 60-mile-long path through Eastern Kentucky, causing extreme damage in West Liberty. The tornado killed six in West Liberty and two near Frenchburg. At least 75 people were injured. It was the first EF-3 tornado in Eastern Kentucky since 1988.


Video 3. A woman prays for deliverance of West Liberty as the ominous wall cloud of the developing tornado approaches the town.

Incredibly fast-moving storms
The speed with which some of the storms moved was truly exceptional, thanks to jet stream winds of up to 115 mph that pushed the thunderstorms forward at amazing speeds. A number of the tornadoes ripped through Kentucky with forward speeds of 70 mph, and two tornado warnings in Central Kentucky were issued for parent thunderstorms that moved at 85 mph. NWS damage surveys have not yet determined if one of the tornadoes from the outbreak has beaten the record for the fastest moving tornado, the 73 mph forward speed of the great 1925 Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest U.S. tornado of all-time.


Video 4. A family gets in their car in an attempt to flee the Borden, Indiana tornado of March 2, 2012. Unless you know what you're doing, fleeing a tornado in a car can be extremely dangerous, especially when the tornadoes are moving at speeds of 50 - 70 mph, as many were doing during the March 2, 2012 outbreak. Most tornado fatalities occur in mobile homes and cars.

Largest 5-day and 2nd largest 2-day tornado outbreak for so early in the year?
The March 2 tornado outbreak spawned 128 tornadoes, according to preliminary reports as of 8 am EST March 7 from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center. An additional 11 tornadoes (preliminary) touched down on March 3, in Florida and Georgia; 3 additional tornadoes touched down on March 1 (Wikipedia does a great job tallying the stats for this tornado outbreak.) These preliminary reports are typically over-counted by 15%, but a few delayed reports will likely come in, bringing the total number of tornadoes from the March 2 - 3 outbreak to 115 - 125, propelling it into second place for the largest two-day tornado outbreak so early in the year. The top five two-day tornado outbreaks for so early in the year, since record keeping began in 1950:

January 21 - 22, 1999: 129 tornadoes, 4 deaths
March 2 - 3, 2012: 139 tornadoes (preliminary), 39 deaths
February 5 - 6, 2008: 87 tornadoes, 57 deaths
February 28 - March 1, 1997: 60 tornadoes, 10 deaths
January 7 - 8, 2008: 56 tornadoes, 4 deaths

Though the 36 tornadoes that occurred during the February 28 - 29 Leap Day outbreak were part of a separate storm system, the five-day tornado total from February 28 - March 3, 2012 is likely to eclipse the late January 18 - 22, 1999 five-day tornado outbreak (131 tornadoes) as the most prolific five-day period of tornado activity on record for so early in the year.


Figure 4. A key ingredient for tornado formation is the presence of warm, moist air near the surface, which helps make the atmosphere unstable. On the day of the March 2, 2012 outbreak, record warm air surged northwards into the tornado formation region, setting or tying daily high temperature records at 28 airports in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia.

Ingredients for the tornado outbreak
This year's unusually mild winter has led to ocean temperatures across the Gulf of Mexico that are approximately 1°C above average--among the top ten warmest values on record for this time of year, going back to the 1800s. (Averaged over the month of February, the highest sea surface temperatures on record in the Gulf between 20 - 30°N, 85 - 95°W occurred in 2002, when the waters were 1.34°C above average). Friday's tornado outbreak was fueled, in part, by high instability created by unusually warm, moist air flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico due to the high water temperatures there. This exceptionally warm air set record high temperatures at 28 airports in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia the afternoon of the tornado outbreak (March 2.) Cold, dry air from Canada moved over the outbreak region at high altitudes. This created a highly unstable atmosphere--warm, low-density air rising in thunderstorm updrafts was able to accelerate rapidly upwards to the top of the lower atmosphere, since the surrounding air was cooler and denser at high altitudes. These vigorous updrafts needed some twisting motion to get them spinning and create tornadoes. Very strong twisting forces were present Friday over the tornado outbreak area, thanks to upper-level jet stream winds that blew in excess of 115 mph. These winds changed speed and direction sharply with height,imparting a shearing motion on the atmosphere (wind shear), causing the air to spin. High instability and a high wind shear are the two key ingredients for tornado formation.


Figure 5. The other key ingredient for tornado formation is the presence of very strong winds aloft that change speed and direction sharply with height. This change of wind imparts a shearing motion on the atmosphere (wind shear), causing the air to spin. Here, we see the upper-level wind speeds at the peak of the March 2, 2012 tornado outbreak. The jet stream can be seen as the U-shaped belt of strong winds. Jet stream winds in excess of 100 mph (deep blue colors) were present over the tornado outbreak area in this analysis of data from the NOAA North American Model (NAM) from 7 pm EST March 2, 2012. Image credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

Another bad year for tornadoes in the U.S.--what's going on?
Last year's tornado season was incredibly severe, and we are off to one of the worst early-season starts to tornado season on record now in 2012. However, it is too soon to ring the alarm bells on climate change being responsible for this. The tornado data base going back to 1950 doesn't show an increasing trend in strong tornadoes in recent decades. While climate change could potentially lead to an increase in tornadoes, by increasing instability, it could also decrease them, by decreasing wind shear. I'd need to see a lot more bad tornado years before blaming climate change for the severe tornado seasons of the past two years. One thing that climate change may be doing, though, is shifting the season earlier in the year. The 5-day total of tornadoes from February 28 - March 3 will probably break the record of 131 set in 1999 for the largest tornado outbreak so early in the year. Warmer winters, and an earlier arrival of spring due to a warming climate, will allow tornado season to start earlier--and end earlier. This year's early start to tornado season is consistent with what we would expect from a warming climate. I have a more extensive article on this subject that has just been published by Weatherwise magazine, and a 2008 post, Are tornadoes getting stronger and more frequent? Dr. Jonathan Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is doing interesting research on the type of situation we saw with some of the recent severe tornado outbreaks, when two branches of the jet stream, the polar jet and the subtropical jet, merge to form a "superjet." In a December 2011 interview with sciencedaily.com, he said: "There is reason to believe that in a warmer climate, this kind of overlapping of the jet streams that can lead to high-impact weather may be more frequent."

I don't see any storm systems coming over the next 10 days that could cause a major tornado outbreak, though March weather is too volatile to forecast reliably that far in advance. There is a storm system expected to develop on Thursday in the Plains we will have to watch, but so far, indications are that it will not be capable of generating a major tornado outbreak.

Portlight disaster relief charity responds to the tornado disaster
The Portlight disaster relief charity reports that volunteers from colleges and churches made a strong showing in tornado-devastated Harrisburg, Illinois on Sunday. Team Rubicon and Portlight will push east to Indiana, where volunteer work is still restricted because of gas leaks and continuing SAR (search and rescue) operations.

I'll edit this post with new stats on the tornado outbreak as they become available, and have an entirely new post on Wednesday.

Jeff Masters

Tornado (JimAtTn)
This picture of a small tornado was taken on Friday March 02, 2012 in southern Lincoln County, Tennessee about 7 miles south of Fayetteville. Photographer: Angela Currey-Echols
Tornado
3/2/12 Tornado (charles7013)
A tornado in Dodsen Brach TN.
3/2/12 Tornado
High Risk (LightningFastMedia)
Rotating wall cloud and a possible funnel yesterday, north of Evansville, IN.
High Risk
tornado damage 3/2/12 (clerese3)
3/2/12 tornado damage to a business I pass on my way to and from work. This was a beautiful brick building.
tornado damage 3/2/12
Tornado Damage - TN (GeorgiaPeach)
I uploaded this photo once already and it was rejected for having the wrong date. I explained before, but I will explain again. The tornado came through March 2nd but I had just gotten out of the hospital, so I didn't get out to take pictures of the damage until today. This is five miles from my house in Hamilton County, TN.
Tornado Damage - TN

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Wow, those videos are amazing..I still say that West Liberty tornado was nothing but just evil..when that woman was praying you could still see a face in those clouds..yeah I aint dropping it, we were talking about another video friday night of the west liberty tornado with the images you can see in the clouds..I am hoping that one day someone will come up with affordable underground storm shelters for mobile homes..just terrible that most of the deaths were from mobile homes and people in cars..so tragic! Prayers go out to the victims of the tornados. My uncle car got wallop in Charlotte from the F1 tornado that hit there by a tree, total loss!
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Quoting JeffMasters:
Added this info to the current post:

Dr. Jonathan Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is doing interesting research on the type of situation we saw with some of the recent severe tornado outbreaks, when two branches of the jet stream, the polar jet and the subtropical jet, merge to form a "superjet." In a December 2011 interview with , he said: "There is reason to believe that in a warmer climate, this kind of overlapping of the jet streams that can lead to high-impact weather may be more frequent."

Thanks for all the great links y'all have posted over the past few days; I used some of them in today's post.

Jeff Masters


That's an interesting research, Doctor. Can't wait to hear more results from Dr. Martin. Hey, maybe you would like to add this to your blog post because I think SPC did a really great job with the forecast.

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This is what I'm worried about. Once this comes out then watchout folks! Also note the return flow which will be going on for days before this even moves into Tornado Alley.



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17. JeffMasters (Admin)
Added this info to the current post:

Dr. Jonathan Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is doing interesting research on the type of situation we saw with some of the recent severe tornado outbreaks, when two branches of the jet stream, the polar jet and the subtropical jet, merge to form a "superjet." In a December 2011 interview with , he said: "There is reason to believe that in a warmer climate, this kind of overlapping of the jet streams that can lead to high-impact weather may be more frequent."

Thanks for all the great links y'all have posted over the past few days; I used some of them in today's post.

Jeff Masters
Geesh you guys need a break! If there is a tornado out break later this week it appears it maybe TX up KS event then spreading east toward the SE US.
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I can't really imagine any years in the future being worse than 2011. 2011 tornado season is like 2005 hurricane season, a season that created many new records that seems to be "unbreakable".

In 2011, we had:

-Deadliest year since 1925 at 552 deaths

-Deadliest outbreak since 1974 (4/27/11)

-Deadliest single tornado day since 1925 (4/27/11)

-Deadliest single tornado since 1953 (Joplin)

-Costliest season ever at 11 billion

-Most tornadoes in single outbreak ever (359 for continuous outbreak (4 days) and 260 in a single day)

-2nd most tornadoes for the year (if it wasn't for lack of activity in 2nd half of 2011, this could've easily shatters the record held by 2004)

-4 EF5 in a single day is the most in a single day since 1974 (4/27/11)

I could go on, but my point is that 2011 will likely to be the worst tornado season ever for a long time... and we all thought Super Outbreak of 1974 was bad.
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Quoting StormTracker2K:


Now we wait to see what later this week and this weekend brings. Could be another outbreak looming later this or this weekend but not on the level of what we saw last week.
I just found this a minute ago. I had thought maybe our area had escaped this storm without any fatalities...From NOAA...Counties DeKalb and White Classification Tornado
EF Rating EF-1 Max Wind Speed 90 MPH
Path Length 13 Miles Path Width 200 Yards


PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NASHVILLE TN
312 PM CST THU MAR 1 2012


...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE CONFIRMS EF1 TORNADO OCCURRED IN
EASTERN DEKALB AND WESTERN WHITE COUNTIES WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON...

A NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE STORM SURVEY TEAM HAS CONFIRMED THAT
DAMAGE OCCURRING IN EASTERN DEKALB COUNTY AND WESTERN WHITE COUNTY
YESTERDAY AFTERNOON WAS CAUSED BY A TORNADO. A MAXIMUM WIND SPEED
OF 90 MPH INDICATES THAT THIS TORNADO WAS AN EF1. TORNADO DAMAGE
BEGAN ABOUT 1 MILE NORTHWEST OF SMITHVILLE ALONG HIGHWAY 83 AND
ENDED ABOUT 7 MILES NORTHWEST OF SPARTA IN WHITE COUNTY MAKING THE
DAMAGE PATH APPROXIMATELY 13 MILES. MAXIMUM PATH WIDTH WAS 200
YARDS. DAMAGE MAINLY CONSISTED OF DOZENS OF SNAPPED OR UPROOTED
TREES. THE MOST SIGNIFICANT DAMAGE WAS LOCATED ON THE WEST SIDE OF
CENTER HILL LAKE WHERE A HOME ON STILTS WAS BLOWN OVER AND
DESTROYED RESULTING IN A FATALITY. OTHER DAMAGE CONSISTED OF MINOR
ROOF DAMAGE AND TREES BLOWN OVER ONTO STRUCTURES. SOME SMALLER
BARNS AND SHEDS WERE DAMAGED AS WELL. THERE WAS 1 CONFIRMED
FATALITY AND NO OTHER KNOWN INJURIES.
Member Since: Septiembre 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 21762
Quoting hydrus:
Thank you as always for the great and informative blog Dr.Masters. The videos are surreal, and the Henrysville tornado looked intense with multiple vortices. It is a real pleasure to see this today.


Now we wait to see what later this week and this weekend brings. Could be another outbreak looming later this or this weekend but not on the level of what we saw last week.
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Thank you as always for the great and informative blog Dr.Masters. The videos are surreal, and the Henrysville tornado looked intense with multiple vortices. It is a real pleasure to see this today.
Member Since: Septiembre 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 21762
Thanks Jeff...amazing photos and videos
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Quoting StormTracker2K:
One can only imagine what April & May will bring. Could have a season worse than last year if that's possible.


Severe weather season could be mostly over with by May this year. The incredible warmth and different jet stream pattern should start and end the severe season earlier than normal. What we might see is a shift of the violent severe weather into the Northern Plains in states such as South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, etc. by the time May rolls around. The storm tracks should be farther north then, and plenty of warmth should be around. Could even be a bad severe weather season for the Northeast. Only time will tell as things can change dramatically, especially in the climate we live in today.
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Quoting kwgirl:
Thank you Dr. Masters. It was a horrific two days and my thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims in these deadly storms. Even with excellant forcasting the suddeness of these storms is frightening. You can't live for two days in a storm cellar awaiting a storm to hit.
I agree you can't live in a storm cellar for two days, but I read an account this morning on MSNBC where the mother of 4 was asleep on the couch while the children slept upstairs. Suddenly "the noise and lightning picked up" and the family members rushed to "get the children downstairs". When the house was blown apart, one of the children was found 350 feet away, luckily unharmed. One of the other children was injured. Now wait a moment here--You have 4 children sleeping upstairs, you're asleep downstairs and you don't know theres a dangerous weather system approaching or on top of you? What kind of irresponsibility is that? Lord knows I've stayed up many times monitoring the weather to keep the family safe. And I'm not the only one in my family, or me neighbors, that have done the same thing with dangerous weather in the area.
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One can only imagine what April & May will bring. Could have a season worse than last year if that's possible.
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Thank you Dr Masters for that complete rundown of all of what occured in that big outbreak.

In another topic,Climate Prediction Center released this week's update of ENSO and Nino 3.4 cooled a little bit to -0.5C,down from -0.4C that was at last week's update. Also,Nino 1-2 warmed a little bit more as is up to 1.1C,and that is up from last week's 0.9C.Interesting to note that the warmer waters at nino 1-2 are not deep as you can see at loop below of the subsurface.

Link



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Great Post! Very early in the year to see this many tornadoes and so may deady ones at that.
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Okay, first let me say that I may be over-reacting to some once-in-a-60year events, or once-in-a-century events, or etc...
(Be interesting to be able to check into local histories. And local legends: even if folks were once-upon-a-time too busy or too illiterate or too spread out to put things down in writing near the time events occurred, an EF3 tornado has gotta have made an impression upon the area's folklore.)
...but when combined with the recent changes in US PlantingZones, the below REALLY bothers me.
609 Neapolitan [quoting CapitalClimate] "Confirmed EF3 Tornadoes in Eastern Kentucky Strongest Ever Observed in At Least 3 Counties: The National Weather Service confirmed late this afternoon that the tornado yesterday in Menifee and Morgan Counties was rated EF3. The tornado at Salyersville in Magoffin County was also an EF3. According to the National Climatic Data Center database of storm reports, these are the first EF3 or higher tornadoes ever reported in these 3 counties since official records began in 1950.
In fact, only 1 tornado as strong as F1, on 06/02/1990, has been reported in Menifee County. The strongest previous tornado in Morgan County was an F2 on 09/29/1972. Magoffin County has had no previous tornadoes as strong as F1 and only 1 F0.
"
I mean when ya live in an area where even the old-timers don't tell tales of hearing their grandpappies talk of the "Great Storm of '27" or somesuch -- and the worst you've experienced is a EFO or an EF1 -- ya don't have the reflex to hunker down when ya hear of "Tornadoes coming your way", or even worry much.
Kinda like Californians hearing of a SantaAna pretty much go about their normal business: the biggest real worries being about whether the power goes out, how many shingles ya might hafta replace, how much cleanup ya'll hafta do afterwards, and whether some idiot arsonists are gonna torch nearby parkland forest. Nobody seriously thinks about any strong possibility of getting killed or critically injured or how to prevent it from happening...

Number of tornadoes F2/EF2 or higher intensity by county in eastern Kentucky, 1950-2011


...same with all the folks on there who've never experienced or been near a strong tornado. The natural assumption being that "something in the landscape, something in the terrain" is protecting them from deadly winds. And if the "TornadoAlley"s are shifting along with the PlantingZones, same with a LOT of other folks living in other parts of the country.
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Thank you Dr. Masters. It was a horrific two days and my thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims in these deadly storms. Even with excellant forcasting the suddeness of these storms is frightening. You can't live for two days in a storm cellar awaiting a storm to hit.
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Thank you, Dr. Masters.

As of this morning, the number of filtered tornado reports for Friday alone is up to 107 (128 unfiltered). The final number will still be less than that, but if the 15% rejection average holds up, we'll wind up with about 90 or so twisters for March 2 alone--by far the most ever reported/recorded for a single day in March.

Speaking of which; Joe Romm over at Climate Progress had a great article yesterday (Tornadoes, Extreme Weather And Climate Change, Revisited) in which he quoted Dr. Masters' previous blog entry at length. It's an interesting read, and makes several important points. One quote in particular from Kevin Trenberth (former head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research) summarizes the situation nicely; Trenberth was responding to a question about media coverage of extreme weather that makes no mention of any possible role GW could be playing:
I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I'm sure you've probably heard is "Well you can't attribute a single event to climate change." But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It's about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it's unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.
The bottom line seems to be: while no one can or should say that Friday's outbreak was caused or made worse by the current warming, no one can or should say that it wasn't. IOW: the jury is still out--but the evidence is certainly beginning to pile up.
Quoting JNCali:
Thanks Dr. Masters.. appreciate the honest presentation of data in this blog..
Dr. Masters is always honest in his presentation; that's why, of course, so many people read his blog.
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"Another bad year for tornadoes in the U.S.--what's going on?
Last year's tornado season was incredibly severe, and we are off to one of the worst early-season starts to tornado season on record now in 2012. However, it is too soon to ring the alarm bells on climate change being responsible for this. The tornado data base going back to 1950 doesn't show an increasing trend in strong tornadoes in recent decades. While climate change could potentially lead to an increase in tornadoes, by increasing instability, it could also decrease them, by decreasing wind shear. I'd need to see a lot more bad tornado years before blaming climate change for the severe tornado seasons of the past two years."

Thanks Dr. Masters.. appreciate the honest presentation of data in this blog..
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I captured this RADAR Imagery as it was Nearing Jasper, Indiana.......Called my Brother at his Manufacturing Plant and he got all his employees in a secure location. He went outside just for a moment to look and could see this Funnel Cloud Approaching. They were lucky it stayed a funnel cause this was the same Funnel that eventually hit the Marysville Town that was wiped out.....HE feels very lucky!
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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