Tornado Week

Monday, June 17th, 2013


Have you ever had one of those weeks where it seemed like everywhere you looked, there was weather? That’s what it was like last week, with three near misses.

In National Harbor for a business event on Monday, I had just returned to my room when I learned about a tornado warning just a few miles to the south. I could see some very wet people outside, but no obvious violent weather, and it blew over. 2 days later,  Elizabeth arrived for pizza with my co-workers, and we were surprised when our iPhones rang simultaneously. It turned out to be a tornado warning in Ohio. We anxiously watched the storm traversing the county on our phones. The tornadic storm passed a couple miles below our property without any impact, other than what must have been a loud hailstorm on a metal roof.

Tornadic storm approaches from southwest

Pooped after long 2 weeks of business travel, I returned home Thursday afternoon, popped a beer, and took it out to the sidewalk to watch the long-expected not-quite-a-derecho-after-all roll in.  The air had that hot sultry Midwestern feeling of impending meteorological violence. The southwestern sky became darker and darker, taking on an unfortunate greenish color. Halfway through my Heineken, the first few rain drops hit, so I walked inside and turned on the telly.

15 minutes to Armeggedon

In half a beer, my world had gone from a severe thunderstorm warning to you have 15 minutes to find a basement. With a certain urgency, the weatherman showed a dark read warning right across our neighborhood, explaining that although there was no apparent tornado on the ground, everyone between Leesburg and Ashburn Junction (a half mile to the southeast) would be best off to assume cyclonic activity.

Heart of the storm from upstairs window

Not having a basement, and apparently having 15 minutes to think about that, I went upstairs to get my camera. As I watched to the southeast, the visibility dropped from a couple hundred yards, to a hundred feet.  Small hail peppered the outside wall, and the window shook violently a couple of times.  Water poured out of the downspouts, missing the lowest tier of gutter, spewing all over the patio. I walked back downstairs to where the basement door would be if we had one.

Heart of the storm

The lights flickered. The windows rattled. The weatherman explained that the purple spots on the radar were really bad, and he held his left hand over our neighborhood to emphasize the benefit of the basements that nobody underneath his hand actually had. By this point, I’d already weathered the first purple spot, with one more smaller one due to pass over any second.  Milking the moment of doom for another 4 minutes, Storm Team 4 then announced that the tornado warning was lifted for Loudoun county, and was headed north of DC through Montgomery County.  Within 30 minutes, the storm had split into two parallel tornado warning paths, thousands of PEPCO customers were without power (so what else is new?) and small funnel cloud damaged a house in Rockville.

Waves of rain hit as the heart of the storm leaves Loudoun

2012: Another Year of Weather

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

This final week of January, much of the country has experienced all 4 seasons, with snow immediately followed by a warm spike. A record high temperature in Northern Virginia was accompanied by flood warnings, and a winter tornado watch.  A 40 degree overnight temperature plunge should quickly restore the snow that was snarling commutes the day before yesterday. All this meteorological drama reminds me that this is the time of year when I blog about how extreme the weather has been since our return from England.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “2012 was a historic year for extreme weather that included drought, wildfires, hurricanes and storms.” Unlike last year’s record-setting tornado activity, that form of violent weather was below average this year.  2012 did start with some unusual winter tornado activity, but after a severe spring outbreak, the country experienced a record-setting stretch of days without a tornado fatality (a record that came to an end today). It was the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States, with Cleveland, Akron and Columbus (presumably Heiser Hollow), and Washington Dulles all experiencing their hottest years ever.

Elizabeth and I were in Japan when the June 2012 Derecho blew from Chicago to Delaware, taking out my parents’ power at the cabin, and several quick hours and 325 miles downwind, blowing all the furniture off our Northern Virginia deck, making Kirk’s the-parents-are-away party especially memorable.  A violent and deadly complex of thunderstorms that knocked out power to millions of homes, most people were not familiar with derechos, although it turns out that the most severe storm in my memory, which caused several fatalities in Cleveland during the 1969 4th of July celebration, was also a derecho. I stayed in Japan during a period that was so hot that the government asked salarymen to leave their neckties at home.  Elizabeth returned to a powerless house with a backyard full of branches and a freezer full of garbage.

Although much of America experienced droughts this year, and it was a record setting year for wildfire damage, after last year’s record rainfall, the relatively normal rainfall in Ohio and Virginia was welcome. But it was stinking hot, with both house and cabin experiencing record heat waves. Then the hurricane season started, with 2012 tying 2011 as the third most destructive year


Hurricane Sandy, nicknamed ‘Frankenstorm’ because it started as a hurricane and then merged with a nor’easter, impacted 29 states. Its $60+ billion in damage made it the #2 most destructive storm after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina (the most costly natural disaster in US history). Although the eye went relatively close to our new Northern Virginia townhouse, encouraging most DC area residents to stay home, the damage here was relatively light.  NYC was hit with record-setting storm surges, knocking out power in some areas for weeks. Hunkered down in his college dorm in Long Island, Kirk experienced his 2nd week-long weather-related power outage. (A little poetry in honor of Sandy.) Recovery from Sandy was hampered by an early November Nor’easter that dumped snow on an area where thousands were homeless.

Last year, the weather ran hot & cold, but more of the former than the latter.

Memorable weather during our first year back in the US

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Last February, I started this post about weather extremes.  I planned on finishing as soon as the weather settled down.  Six months later, I’m still waiting.

Living in England for so long, we found that if anything, the English tend to be especially preoccupied about the weather, which does have a tendency to change without warning in England.  When asked by the English how I like their weather, I used to to reply that I like English weather better than American weather, because it lacked the uncomfortable extremes.  This was usually not an acceptable answer, apparently being received as yet another example of American braggadocio. Totally disregarding my social need for climactic parity, 18 months after our return to the US, the weather continues to be a lot harsher than I remember from my first 40 years here.

Narrowly missing December 2009 snowstorms in England and Virginia, last season’s harsh weather finally caught up to me in Ohio, with a storm compared to the epic blizzards of the late 70s giving me and the Subaru a refresher course in snow driving. The first half of Virginia’s record snowfall started during my return drive on Jan 30. It started snowing during the day on Friday, 5 February 2010, and didn’t stop until Saturday night. The fourth largest snowfall on record for DC (as measured at the airport), everyone in Vienna/Reston feels that this was a bigger snow than the ’96 storm. We had about 28 inches here, which brought motorized life to a near standstill.

Unprecedented snowfall was followed by an unusually warm and short spring. After at least 2 weeks without any frost, I decided to plant my first set of tomatoes 2 weeks early. They did fine, and the frost didn’t return until November, making for about an 8 month growing season. Although there were periods of heavy rain, precipitation was on the low side for the year, and the long hot summer meant that neither green beans nor limas produced any fruit until September.

The entire eastern half of the country experienced extremely violent weather during the summer, with tornado-producing fronts working their way across the continent over a period of days.  We never saw any tornadoes, although we had a number of violent little storms, and I was close to a tornado in Chatauqua, NY (3 blog posts from last July with storm videos).

2011 did not see any DC area records for snowfall, but we did have one memorably harsh snowstorm that snarled traffic for hours, and stranded many people overnight.   Dropping bad snow on top of worse, it hit just before rush hour, creating impossible driving conditions in much of the DC area, which many police and bus drivers were quoted as saying were the worst that they’d ever seen. The heavier snows the previous years had not resulted in as many power outages (650,000) nor had they resulted in 8 hour commuting times.

The blizzard of late January 2011 did result in record snow falls for NYC. They were still shoveling the place out when Elizabeth and I arrived a couple days later to celebrate our anniversary. We’d already spent a very cold January day in Ohio, meeting Sam the builder, Sheldon the excavator, and several other interested parties as we decided exactly where to put the cabin.  This was followed by a miserably rainy day in February while I followed the surveyors around the northern and eastern boundary of our property.  Both of those trips were punctuated by memorably snowy evenings in the Millersburg Comfort Inn, watching the pickup trucks sliding around SR 83.

After last year’s early and short spring, I started my vegetable garden on March 1, and planted my tomatoes and squash early.  The spring garden had a bumper crop of peas, spinach and lettuce, the last of which was pretty much gone by June.  Meanwhile, the country was experiencing its worst ever outbreak of tornadoes from April 25-28.  I watched the Weather Channel in morbid fascination as a deadly tornado raked across the northern side of Birmingham, Alabama. Heroic work by the National Weather Service and local media meant sufficient warning so that the highest ever level of tornado damage was not accompanied by the highest level of tornado fatalities.

Besides all that, it rained. A lot.  Parts of the Mississippi and Missouri river basins saw the worst flooding in almost 80 years, and the Corps of Engineers was forced to deliberately flood some communities to save others. We had hoped to start construction of our Ohio cabin in March, but heavy rains in the central part of the state delayed our start. Photo club friend Tom Shevock and I went on a photoshoot on March 3 along the Potomac Valley.  After a couple hours of pouring rain, we had lunch in Brunswick, MD and called it quits.  It turned out to be the rainiest day in 44 years of record-keeping at nearby Dulles Airport.

In May, it was recognized in Ohio as the worst farming season in over 50 years, and it has continued to rain since then. Although none of the individual floods have approached the violence of the July 4th 1969 flood, Elizabeth has seen the Killbuck over its banks during several spring trips back to Ohio.

July set heat records across large swaths of the USA. Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and previously battered and now fried Arkansas all experienced record high temperatures and set multiple records for highest highs, highest lows, and highest consecutive temperatures.  Northern, VA had what was probably the hottest July ever recorded, and an all time record high of 105 was set at Dulles Airport.  Spending 3 weeks in Ohio, where it was merely well above average, I missed the worst of the heat, but Kirk and Elizabeth reported that the A/C seemed to be struggling.

Although many parts of the country have had noteworthy levels of rain, other parts are suffering unprecedented levels of drought. The US Drought Monitor shows virtually all of Texas and large parts of the south as experiencing extreme to exceptional levels of drought, while a swath from Ohio through Kentucky and Tennessee shows as a drought free area between two abnormally dry areas (what the map does not show is how abnormally wet Ohio has been).  Although we continue to have heavy showers in Northern, VA, it isn’t enough water, especially in all this heat, to keep us from away from the edge of a moderate drought.

The good thing about the weather is that there is always something to talk about.

July Storm Part 3: Where’s the Tornado?

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Saturday July 24, several waves of severe storm crossed Lake Chautauqua.  At 5pm, a tornado warning was announced. The view from this dock in Jamestown, at the southern end of the lake, was impressive. A huge wall cloud, miles across, blew across the sky to the north.

The picture of the wall cloud below is a panorama, stitched together from 9 frames that I took handheld with my Canon G9. If you click on it, you’ll get a much larger image (hint–click on that image to see it full size–you’ll need to scroll back and forth).  My guess is that the nasty gray knot at the far right is whatever is left of the F2 tornado that crossed the north end of the lake, touching down 10 minutes earlier, 15 miles beyond the sail boat in the far left.  Somewhere in this wall cloud is the remnant of that twister.

From our vantage point on the dock, we had a perfect view of the squall line, watching the wind, rain, and white caps approach from 5 miles away. It hit hard, with strong winds and heavy rain.

A local television station has some impressive video footage of the actual tornado and map from the National Weather Service.

Here’s a statement from the National Weather Service with more details.

Edited video by Jim Grimaldi on YouTube showing the tornado and some of the damage.

If you can’t view my video, here’s a version in Shockwave.

Tornado or microburst?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Yesterday, I circumnavigated the 55 almost square acres of Heiser Hollow. I like to walk the bounds every year (at least since the neighbor had the southern property line surveyed), but this summer, I was especially curious about the storm damage, which cut two narrow swathes of trees across the entire width of the property.

The storm damage started on the western edge, parallel to the drive, topping a couple of maple trees, one of which the guys from the power company helped us clear last week. A couple hundred feet further south, 3-4 tall white pines were topped, about 30-40′ in the air. A sort of sickly looking cherry tree was down next to them, not topped, but with the root ball pulled out of the ground.

Several trees came down alongside the road leading down into the valley, and they’ll have to be chainsawed if we want to use the road any time soon. One tree was down in the valley, and then there was no damage for several hundred feet. Along the path we call the Ridge Trail, which parallels the eastern property line, a group of 5 trees were all snapped off at about 40 feet in the air. This is the strangest storm damage I’ve ever seen at the Hollow. It looks like a rotary blade descended from the sky, chopped off some trees, and then retracted.

A couple hundred yards to the north, the damage was very different, but more extensive. Instead of topping the trees, it toppled them. The combination of wet soil and high winds resulted in at least a dozen trees pulling up roots and falling over. Mostly leaving the useless aspen and poplar untouched, the freak wind concentrated on valuable hardwoods

In this picture, Elizabeth is standing next to a 20″ cherry tree which has fallen on the root ball of a 2nd cherry, which itself is lying on top of the roots of a 3rd tree. In addition to the cherries, at least one ash came down, which is especially sad given that ash in other parts of the state are struggling with borer.

There are probably enough timber grade trees down to make it worth having a small lumber operator coming in and harvesting them.

The map below shows a simplified view of the damaged (red) and downed (yellow) trees. It looks very much like two separate wind cells, several hundred feet apart, cut parallel paths. We heard that a funnel cloud was sighted about a mile to the east.

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