Weather officials in Kansas will be watching major thunderstorms this year for a clue about wind speeds that may help indicate the path of potential tornadoes.
The research stems from tornadoes last year in Kansas and Oklahoma that baffled weather researcher Jon Davies. The two large tornadoes—one near Bennington in north-central Kansas on May 28, and another near El Reno in central Oklahoma on May 31—took unpredictable paths. Davies studied those tornadoes and found each had fairly weak winds between 10,000 and 30,000 feet above the surface.
“Bennington…was really unusual,” said Davies, who presented some of his research at the national storm chaser convention in Denver last month, The Wichita Eagle reported.
A storm motion algorithm showed the storm should move east at 12-15 mph. But the tornado instead moved slowly in a large loop for about an hour, destroying one house and damaging four others.
Three days later in Oklahoma, storm chasers focused on the El Reno tornado, which dramatically changed direction, size and speed. Eight people were killed, including four storm chasers. Davis said that like the Bennington tornado, the El Reno tornado had fairly weak midlevel winds.
Kansas weather officials said they’ll be looking at midlevel winds with strong thunderstorms this season to see if they can correlate those wind speeds with tornado paths.
Suzanne Fortin, meteorologist-in-charge of the weather service’s Wichita branch, said she was intrigued by the role weak midlevel winds might play in affecting a tornado’s path. A storm with a strong upper-level wind flow helps create “a very structured environment” within which a tornado moves, she said.
“When you start deviating from a very structured environment, that’s when you’re going to get these small-scale deviations” in a tornado’s path, she said.
Larry Ruthi, meteorologist-in-charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service, said forecasters could potentially get a bearing on whether a supercell thunderstorm’s tornadoes will be erratic.
“I think it would be an interesting concept to see if we could get some reading on it,” Ruthi said.