Local Weather History: 8 Instances Our Area Has Been Instrumental in the Study & Understanding of Meteorology

Since 1870, I have narrowed down eight instances where the understanding of ground-breaking meteorological research has developed in our area.

Posted: Oct 26, 2020 9:49 PM
Updated: Oct 30, 2020 10:37 PM

Days after the 100th birthday of famed severe weather researcher Dr. Theodore Fujita, I go back to the time where events in our area have inspired groundbreaking research by scientists like Fujita.  The 22nd anniversary of his passing will occur November 19 & some of his best research was done in some of our counties, especially being professor at the University of Chicago (relatively closeby).

1.  Dr. Fujita's Groundbreaking Findings In Warren & White Counties, April 1974 Super Outbreak:  A Snowball of Effects with Discovered Suction Vortices, Microbursts, RFDs & FFDs, Etc. Which Led to Future Projects Such as VORTEX

Arguably, Fujita's first mainstream research began with the May 1970 Lubbock, Texas tornado, but the April 1974 outbreak became some of the most important work in his career.  The discovery of downbursts in the storms & the ramifications for the aviation industry & study into the suction vorticies & the reasoning of the unusually long life of the Monticello tornado were very important in the advancement of the science of meteorology.  This also led to detailed storm surveys on the ground & from the air from NWS (US Weather Bureau at the time) becoming much more routine following severe weather.

He found a twisting downburst northeast of Rainsville that disrupted the tornado to cause it to lift, so there was a brief lull in actual tornado damage, but damage from the interesting downburst.  Multiple wind events were found & researched in these storms outside of the tornadoes.  Discovery of the downbursts led to the large Project NIMROD May-June 1978 which documented other downbursts in the field with portable radar equipment (precursor to & inspiration toward VORTEX projects).  A portable radar caught a great radar shot of a microburst in Kendall County, Illinois in May 1978 on a day that we saw similar severe weather in our area as well!

This led to better safety standards in aviation.  Other wind phenomena including the RFD that preceded the downburst near Rainsville was noted, as well as FFDs.

Multiple vortices were noted in the Monticello tornado, as were several others, including one documented by a former WLFI employee (see below) that were groundbreaking & significant for the time.  It was the best footage retrieved in a tornado outbreak & led to an entirely new era in the understanding of supercells, storm winds & tornadoes.  This also inspired a new era of first-time field work with storms live in the field with video.

Clip from Fujita's published research on tornadoes & damaging winds in 1978 from the University of Chicago:

The first supercell ahead of the monster Monticello one as viewed from Purdue University, looking northwest is in the picture below.  A very pronounced wall cloud is noted, but rain tends to be wrapping around it, showing it to be RFD-driven.  The Monticello supercell became this way briefly with the downburst, then really got its act together to produce the longest tornado track of the 1974 Super Outbreak at 109 miles.

2.  The First Hook Echo Seen April 9, 1953

A significant HP supercell t'storm tracked across the entire southern part of our viewing area with significant tornado damage & hail 3" in diameter on April 9, 1953.  Other supercells occurred, including one that produced more large damaging hail & an EF2 tornado in Newton County.  However, the storm farther south in our area was the main monster supercell at the "triple point" of our storm system (warm, cold & occluded front meet). 

Damage from the 3" hail was considerable to roofs, windows, greenhouses, automobiles & orchards from southern central Warren to northern Clinton County north of the tornado track.  In the tornado, 5 were killed & 22 injured in rural Warren County alone.  1 person was killed & 6 injured at & near Frankfort where the tornado caused extensive damage to southside neighorhoods.  It narrowly missed Williamsport, Attica, Romney & Tipton.

This large stove-pipe to wedge violent EF4 tornado tracked from northeast of Champaign, Illinois to just north of Muncie, Indiana for a 157-mile track with upwards of $74 million in damage (inflation adjusted).

A pic of it survives, taken early in its development over Champaign County, Illinois (image courtesy of Illinois Water Survey):

The first hook echo ever caught on radar was recorded.  This was also extremely important in that meteorologists began to correlate it with tornado.  This was helpful in issuing future tornado warnings.  Hook echoes seen in other tornadoes in the 1950s & 1960s helped to issue the warnings before Doppler radar & before spotters reported a tornado on the ground.

Link to overview of this outbreak on the blog: 

https://www.wlfi.com/content/news/Local-Weather-History--April-9-1953-Tornadoes--First-Tornado-Signature-Seen-on-Radar-569526541.html#:~:text=April%209%2C%201953%20saw%20a%20severe%20weather%20outbreak,Illinois%29%2C%20damaging%20areas%20near%20Goodland%20%28damage%20around%20%24250%2C000%29.

This radar image from the newly-installed at Champaign-Williard Airport (now University of Illinois Airport) provided the image as the supercell moved eastward toward Vermilion County, Illinois then Warren County, Indiana.

Image courtesy of Illinois Water Survey.

Seeing the hook echoes in the supercells of the 1974 Super Outbreak helped to issue many, many tornado warnings before the reports of tornadoes on the ground were received.  Albeit crude radar with a lack of great range (& much territory in the country with lack of radar coverage), 1953 was still a benefit in the 1965 & 1974 outbreaks.  However, it should be noted that not all hook echoes are tornadoes.  Today we have other parameters in Doppler radar to confirm.  Today, we have found that even vertical side lobes in storms can distort velocity data & give false tornado signatures.  Again, other parameters can determine if it is truly just strong low-level rotation, a funnel cloud or a tornado.

Note the hook echos in the supercells over western Ohio April 3, 1974 (courtesy of NOAA):

Note the number of counties that were issued the benficial Tornado Warnings in the 1974 Super Outbreak (image courtesy of NOAA):

3.  The Federal Inquiry with 14 Findings:  The Catalyst for Better Doppler Training, Stream-Lined New Warning Process & Office Restructuring:  April 26-27, 1994 Violent Tornado

This violent tornado was key to significant changes in the wording in Tornado Warnings & a complete new slimming of the warning process.

The federal inquiry into this significant tornado found 14 things that need improved in the warning process of tornadoes.  These findings resulted in rapid advancement of tornado detection, warnings, etc. in 1994 & 1995.  This was a key time period for the modernization of SPC (formerly NSSFC) & NWS offices.

Image & available assessment all courtesy of NOAA)

A few of the 14 things found were:

1.  The FAA observer saw the tornado in the control tower at the Purdue Airport & sent the report to AFSS at the Terre Haute-Hulman Field Airport immediately.  However, AFSS logged "funnel cloud" in the observation & not "tornado".  AFSS was in charge of transcribing the obs by the contract observer.  AFSS had to be alerted, but NWS needed this report simultaneously & AFSS should not have changed the observation.

2.  EOC witnessed the tornado tear down high-tension power lines as it first touched down, but did not relay this report to NWS Indianapolis according to the inquiry. 

The report stated that a STREAM-LINED communication system with communication with MORE spotters needed to be established.  Education needed to done to ensure such reports from EOC are immediately sent to local NWS forecast office.

3.  It was found prior to the tornado that the NOAA weather radio station had an issue & that an NWS Indianapolis meteorologist immediately called the phone company as it was determined to be a phone line problem.  Even not knowing that the line was fixed just immediately prior to the tornado, the NWS programmer continued to operate the system as if it were operational.  This likely saved lives as many were awakened by the Severe T'Storm Warning issued for Warren, then Tippecanoe County.

This became a shining example of checking equipment & troubleshooting issues & still pushing the warning out even if you think the network is having issues. 

4.  The initial Severe T'Storm Warning was only up to Warren County, as that is where the storm was located.  The storm was moving so quickly, that Tippecanoe should have been covered in the warning early, but forward speed was not considered so much.  It was largely where the storm was in the warning process in that time.  This concept eventually segwayed into polygon warnings down the road.

5.  Despite Moderate Risk, the NWS office was understaffed at the time, so strong emphasis in staffing was placed from that point forward, even with Slight Risks.

7.  NWS Indianapolis served Jasper County in 1994 & the data in the Jasper County storm (which produced tornado in Pulaski County) looked stronger than the West Lafayette storm per Marseilles, Illinois radar.  No reports were received from Jasper or Pulaski County, so NWS carried this thinking into warning issuance with the West Lafayette storm, according to the report. 

The big change was to consider radar location, position & look at the storm & to not use previous lack of reports for warning decisions per sey.  

A massive office re-alignment occurred in 1995 with new offices, smaller forecasting areas.  

Here is a write-up from the event on the blog:

https://www.wlfi.com/content/news/Remembering-the-Deadly-April-27-1994-Tornadoes-509075561.html

Photo gallery of the tornado damage from the Lafayette Journal & Courier:

https://www.jconline.com/picture-gallery/news/local/2014/04/24/jc-flashback-1994-tornado/8108125/

4.  Palm Sunday 1965 & the Complete Overall of the Severe Weather Alert System & Communication with New Promotion

The tornadoes in our viewing area in the Palm Sunday Outbreak caused the change in how severe weather information is communicated.  Those changes are still in place today.  The first "Watch" & "Warning" implementation was established following this outbreak.  Prior to this, there were only "forecasts" & "alerts", which caused great confusion among those seeking shelter in the outbreak.  

This was the very first time Dr. Fujita found evidence of his suction vortices that he documented in 1974.  He found demolished homes next to homes seemingly "skipped" by the tornado.  Theories of small, violent funnels within the parent tornado first began to emerge.  The 1974 turned the theories into fact.

It was also reported that the public failed to receive the "alerts", leading to a very high death toll.    

Massive promotion of the watches & warnings & safety were launched in the mid 60s following this outbreak.

These were promotional films published by the US Weather Bureau (now NWS) following the outbreak to spread awareness of the new "watch" & "warning" & to communicate that safety during storms all over the public:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=1960s+tornado+safety&&view=detail&mid=B9016B9D82373FC8A23EB9016B9D82373FC8A23E&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3D1960s%2520tornado%2520safety%26qs%3Dn%26form%3DQBVR%26sp%3D-1%26pq%3D1960s%2520tornado%2520safety%26sc%3D0-20%26sk%3D%26cvid%3DF9F688CCC10F46D49F5747CF950D6AB8

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=1960s+tornado+safety&ru=%2fvideos%2fsearch%3fq%3d1960s%2520tornado%2520safety%26qs%3dn%26form%3dQBVR%26sp%3d-1%26pq%3d1960s%2520tornado%2520safety%26sc%3d0-20%26sk%3d%26cvid%3dF9F688CCC10F46D49F5747CF950D6AB8&view=detail&mid=F1F2AF22057790819877F1F2AF22057790819877&rvsmid=B9016B9D82373FC8A23EB9016B9D82373FC8A23E&FORM=VDRVRV

5.  The "First" Derecho August 31, 1877 & a Launching Pad for "Wind Squalls" Research

Professor at the University of Iowa, Gustavus Detlef Hindrichs first described this widespread, significant windstorm as more intense than other storms.  He gave it the designation of the name "derecho" or "straight" referring to the straight-line wind damage with the path of the wind & damage mapped over Iowa.  This is same derecho raked our viewing area as well & continued all the the way through Ohio.  The "wind squalls" of the "straight-line type" became a product of conversation in the meteorological community following this published research in the 1880s.

Note:  It appears the derecho was August 31, 1877, as there was no severe weather reported in any logs or observational data July 31, 1877.  This paper was done in the 1880s, so it is possible that this was mistake by Dr. Hindrichs in looking back at the event years later.

American Meteorological Journal, 1888......image & document courtesy of University of Iowa Libraries:

Link to post on this particular derecho on the blog:

https://www.wlfi.com/content/news/Local-Weather-History--The-First-Time-Storm-Complex-Was-Called-Derecho--How-It-Is-Connected-to-Our-Area-572105601.html#:~:text=A%20derecho%20rake%20areas%20from%20southeastern%20South%20Dakota%2C,31%2C%201877.%20Posted%3A%20Aug%2013%2C%202020%209%3A48%20PM

6.  Wally Hubbard's Video in the '74 Outbreak

Wally Hubbard had a long career at WLFI as a reporter, photojournalist & producer.  I was happy to work with Wally 2009-2010 when I came to WLFI, not knowing he shot one of the most well-known videos of one of the tornadoes in the 1974 Super Outbreak.  Dr. Fujita actually edited Wally's video to keep it steady & was intensely studied by the scientists in his multi-vortex or suction vortices research.

Wally's video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX_09wCbg-Q

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+april+1974+super+outbreak+wally+hubbard&&view=detail&mid=51DB09BA9CD6580310B951DB09BA9CD6580310B9&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dyoutube%2520april%25201974%2520super%2520outbreak%2520wally%2520hubbard%26qs%3Dn%26form%3DQBVR%26sp%3D-1%26pq%3Dyoutube%2520april%25201974%2520super%2520outbreak%2520wally%2520hubbard%26sc%3D0-47%26sk%3D%26cvid%3D96A4B061E2514B35845BA2136D5357D7

7.  Dr. Agee's Suction Vorticity Work on the March 20, 1976 West Lafayette F4 Tornado

Images courtesy of AMS Monthly Weather Review.

Purdue Atmospheric Science released one of the the best studies on suction vortices & multi-vortex tornadoes in 1978, which only added more to the ground-breaking work of Fujita.  This was a violent F4 tornado that tracked just northwest of the April 1994 F4 in Tippecanoe County.

The multiple vortices were carefully & mathematically documented in corn stubble (wet 1975 fall prevented plowing).  This helped to determine the suprising wind patterns & most violent narrow corridors within the entirity of the large funnel.  Great systematic, well-planned photography of the tornado orchestrated by the Purdue professors documented the evolution of such a tornado of such violence, which is rare in Indiana.

It also appeared that the development of a satellite funnel was documented as Professor Snodgrass faced toward the northwest just north of Mt. Zion Church.  It was later shown that this satellite funnel preceded very rapid uptick in strength of the tornado from F2 to F3 & F4 over a short distance.  Satellite funnels or tornadoes are smaller than the parent funnel & can be found even more than a mile away from the tornado, pivoting around it.  These are associated with higher end strong to violent tornadoes.  The last satellite funnel I covered was November 6, 2005 when a high-end F3 tornado killed 24 people in the Evansville area tornado.  The small satellite tornado was reported by the storm survey team that explained to me that the damage was very near F4.

Also, ushering in the modern data, the 1976 tornado track was then compared sweep-by-sweep with radar (Grissom Air Reserve Base radar).

No other studies had detailed & mathematically documented such a tornado to such a degree.  An entirely new world of understanding into the small details going on inside the funnel of these deadly tornadoes as instrumental in propelling tornado research into the 80s, then 90s & beyond.  

This occurred none other than right in our backyard.

Hook echo northwest of West Lafayette seen here in the Grissom ARB radar at the time:

Carefully-documented survey of the track:

Note the multitude of suction vortices of this complex multi-vortex as viewed from the Purdue Research Park at the time.

This is the vortices east of 600 N & 225 W intersection, north-northeast of Mt. Zion Church.

This was actually when the tornado became the most intense as it neared I-65 between 800 N & 725 N.  It actually crossed I-65 as an F4  just north of the 725 bridge & was nearly as wide as the area between 800 & 725.

8.  All New School Safety Standards

Monticello lost 3 schools in the April 1974 tornado & they were all thoroughly investigated by NWS mets & Fujita to find where the safest places would have been in the schools.  They found eye-opening, extremely beneficial information in the destruction of schools in the Twin Lakes Corporation that debunked previous myths about tornadoes & shelter.

Prior to this, no widespread, consistent, blanket government school safety protocol was in place.  That changed with this research.

This also led to a wave of tornado safety promotion videos following this outbreak, including emergency school evacuation procedures in event of emergency:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2hw6vut5VA

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