Volume 5, Number 1, October 2014
It was the first and only time I’ve ever seen a green cloud. I was on the steps of the von Braun Research Hall at UAH on a warm and muggy Wednesday late afternoon, Nov. 15, 1989, prior to teaching a weather lab.
Looking southwestward I marveled at the remarkable cloud formation through which the sun’s colors, except green, were being scattered away by excessive hail and ice.
What we did not know then was that from this thunderstorm descended a deadly F-4 tornado that would soon plow through south-central Huntsville. In fact many of the hundreds of injuries and some fatalities occurred as unsuspecting motorists drove straight into what appeared to them to be a wind-driven shaft of rain.
With cameras everywhere in such a heavily populated, weather-aware and hi-tech city, we have no photos of the funnel itself. As is common in the humid Southeast, our tornadoes appropriate for themselves a kind of stealth technology, using the abundant moisture as a curtain behind which they hide and destroy.
The contrast in air masses that created that storm was tremendous; by late evening, snow was falling on emergency crews as they struggled with the aftermath of a tornado that killed 21 people and injured 463, while causing more than $100 million in damage.
Our moist environment, hilly terrain and abundance of missiles (trees) give Alabama’s tornadoes extra potency, which requires us to be extra-vigilant and to develop strong infrastructure to avoid the loss of life and property.
This we can do.
But, compare our situation with that of “Tornado Alley” in the Plains, with its prairie vegetation (not too many fatalities from flying wheat), flat landscape, and dry air, allowing views of such storms from miles away. We need specialized attention to understand the regional factors that affect us here.
Our capabilities for improved vigilance were significantly enhanced this past month as Gov. Bentley opened the Severe Weather Institute, and Radar and Lightning Laboratory (SWIRLL) on UAH’s campus. This state-built facility will house the latest instrumentation and research programs for detecting, monitoring and forecasting severe weather and lightning.
Advances discovered with our research will be absorbed into the National Weather Service’s operations as they perform the critical mission of forecasting and warning of the potential dangers that our climate generates.
Please note that November tornadoes aren't especially rare in Alabama. In the 24 Novembers between 1989 and today, there have been 149 tornadoes reported in Alabama. That includes the 25-tornado outbreak of November 2004, which included five EF-2 tornadoes, and the 35-tornado storm of November 2001. That storm produced 10 EF-2 tornadoes, plus one EF-3 and an EF-4.
As is so often the case, October was a study in weather contrasts in Alabama. Auburn got only 0.73" of rain for the month, as 60 percent of the state slipped into some stage of dry or drought. Much of Tallapoosa and Clay counties is classified as in a "severe drought."
At the same time, much of north Alabama got ample, if not bountiful rain in October. Muscle Shoals got almost seven inches, while Scottsboro got 7.44", Russellville just over eight and Cullman almost eight and a half.
- John Christy