Tornado tracks from space

By Phil Plait | May 3, 2011 11:00 am

The other day I posted a video showing GOES space imagery of the severe storms that blasted across the United States on April 27. NASA has other satellites that observe the Earth as well, including Aqua, which captured the image below of the aftermath of the storms. The picture is centered on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and you can clearly see the tracks in the ground left by the killer tornadoes that swept through the state.

The videos people took of the tornadoes are absolutely terrifying. The Red Cross was in the area immediately after the storms went through; if you have a mind to, they are as always accepting donations.

Images like this help meteorologists track down and understand the conditions for such storms to form. Obviously, the better we understand those conditions the more prepared we can be. And the farther in advance we can predict these storms — even by minutes — the more lives we can save.

Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Alabama, Aqua, tornadoes

Comments (20)

  1. R.Welch

    Fascinating what our satellites can show us. What surprises me is that those tracks are so small and narrow, yet represent an incredible amount of damage

  2. cy

    It was an amazing system.

    In March/April you usually get high shear systems but lower instability. The jet stream is still strong but its not hot enough to get that high instability.

    In May/June you usually get the normal shear/high to extreme instability. The jet stream is weaker but you get those scorching days.

    This was extreme shear, extreme helicity, and extreme instability. Once in a generation set up.

  3. Steve

    I am amazed at how straight the tracks seem to be. I was always under the impression that tornadoes, like spinning tops, meandered quite a bit. I guess not?

  4. Mapnut

    In the full image, in addition to the three tracks marked, I see two more due east of Tuscaloosa and two more well to the north.

  5. Heart-wrenching and awe inspiring at the same time.

  6. Daniel J. Andrews

    Images like this help meteorologists track down and understand the conditions for such storms to form. Obviously, the better we understand those conditions the more prepared we can be. And the farther in advance we can predict these storms — even by minutes — the more lives we can save

    So guess you don’t want to cut funding to NOAA satellites.

    Dr. Romm has his perspective on this too–you don’t even need to read the article, just the title of his link tells you what he thinks.

  7. Mike G

    Here’s a useful graphic which shows the location and statistics of each track.

    Some of them are over a mile wide and one is 132 miles long!

  8. Matthew Saunders

    Man Phil,

    your blog is just chock full of awesome pictures. Glad to see you still haven’t lost your boyish curiosity :) I used to be really into astronomy and cosmology, looked into going into school for it, but that dream went away when I discovered the math involved and I’m not good at math — my elementary education focused on self-esteem and curiosity and not math fundamentals.

  9. While AQUA gives you a broad perspective, if you want to see detail, go sub-meter:

  10. Anchor

    I looked hard at that image and could not discern the tracks of the tornadoes. Perhaps there is a higher res version that unambiguously shows them. Not here though. I have to say, in all honesty, there is nothing there in the ’embiggened’ imasge that shows a tornado track, let alone several. This is a farce.

  11. Mapnut

    Hmm, an agressive tornado denialist. If you’re looking for a mile-wide swath, I don’t see any of those. They’re less than a millimeter wide, but I don’t know why you can’t see them, even the marked ones above. They all trend southwest-northeast.

  12. Andy

    I haven’t checked all the marked tracks, but the one that seems to come from Tuscaloosa and the one on another image I’ve seen of North Alabama seem to both match up suspiciously well with the path of high voltage power lines.

  13. Here in Georgia we didn’t get impacted quite as much but nonetheless we had an EF4 and a few EF3 twisters. One of them passed two miles from my house. We were huddled in the basement. Shortly before that I was glued to the tele as our local meteorologists were broadcasting nonstop. I saw the yellow (storm warning) box turn to red (tornado) and I could see it in the radar, that little bitty ‘hook’. They can veer one way or another so I hauled us all downstairs. Minutes later we heard emergency vehicles outside for a few minutes. We didn’t know the impact until the next morning.

    The damage from even an EF3 is just incredible to behold. It will leave the land scarred for quite sometime. A rare event indeed. We’ve had several warning in years past only to be minor or a non-event. This was the real deal. We lost two people in our county but I’m surprised there weren’t more. Another EF3 hit the county next to us and yet another hit the county below us only a couple of miles from my parents house. Terrifying night to say the least.

    I like to think that the advanced warning helped get people to safety. Go science.

  14. Caleb T

    I’m a student the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I do believe those lines in the image are the tornados’ paths. The one that hit downtown Tuscaloosa was at least an EF4 which tore through the downtown area on a southwest to northeast path, which would correspond to bottom-left to upper-right in this image. It continued onward for approximately a 100 km. It hit the Fultondale area, a northern suburb of Birmingham, which is perhaps 50 km northeast of Tuscaloosa. It was really terrifying, and it left a ton of devastation. Please help out if you can.

  15. Caleb T

    This link, which provides a map of post-April 27 Tuscaloosa, should clarify what the destruction looks like.

  16. zeke

    This severe weather episode was anticipated at least five days in advance:

    Severe weather outlook at 3 days in advance started to mention “enhanced” wording:


    (Moderate risk outlooked at day 3 is rare)

    Satellite imagery didn’t help and does not help “meteorologists track down and understand the conditions for such storms to form. Obviously, the better we understand those conditions the more prepared we can be.”

    Forecasters were able to issue warnings on average 27 minutes prior to tornado occurrence and 90% of the tornadoes occurred in a warned area. (Private communication)

    What we desperately need to understand is, with near perfect warnings during this event, why so many people died. I suspect after the investigations that most people did the right thing under the circumstances, but it wasn’t sufficient given the severity of tornadoes that occurred. Perhaps this will result more apartments buildings and homes with hardened shelters.

    Satellite imagery doesn’t factor into this at all. Stick to astronomy, Phil.

  17. Mike G

    Zeke, the storm in north Alabama scoured pavement from roads, wiped concrete structures with anchor bolts completely flat, and even sucked people out of purpose-built undergrounds storm shelters. While those underground shelters are the gold standard, most people don’t have them either because they don’t have the money or don’t have the space to build one. Most areas have no public shelters either. 3 days warning does no good if there’s no safe place to go short of leaving the region entirely. Many schools and businesses had closed early for the day due to the unusually high risk of tornadoes, but that simply meant that people died at home rather than work or school.

    Also, due to earlier storms which destroyed several main transmission lines, large areas of north Alabama were without power when the EF5 storm hit. Tornado sirens, cell phones, and some weather radio repeaters didn’t work. While forecasters might have offered 27 minutes of warning, many of the people in the path of those storms had no way of getting the message.

  18. Mike G

    Andy, compare the tracks with those of confirmed tornadoes that I linked to in #7. Also note that the track in north Alabama cuts across the northern part of the Bankhead NF and the track south of Tuscaloosa (the southern-most marked track in the labeled version of the pic) cuts across the middle of Talladega NF. Neither area has high voltage power lines.

    Also, notice that the right of way for the high voltage lines is only 200 ft wide right next to the power plant, and much narrower elsewhere. That’s a bit larger than 10-lane interstate 565, which runs through the same area and definitely isn’t discernable. Meanwhile the confirmed width of the tornado track in that area is 1.25 miles.

  19. zeke

    @ Mike G.

    Interesting that you say 3 days of warning time does no good for its citizens. State and local emergency managers, media sources, and local governments would disagree with you. It’s also contradicted by the fact that a few businesses and most schools were closed early that day. Was the reason for the early closure that it was a nice spring day? Of course not, and using your words, it was ‘due to the unusually high risk of tornadoes’. That action alone may have saved a few tens, perhaps hundreds, of lives because the population was dispersed and not concentrated in small areas (e.g. after school activities).

    My point of the original post is that satellite imagery plays no direct role in tornado forecasting as Phil stated. This tornado outbreak was well forecasted and warned without the use of satellite imagery.

    As for the rest of your post I am not sure what your point is. The government doesn’t have a magic wand that can repair power lines or build stronger shelters or restore cell-phone service instantly.

    To repeat my third paragraph a little differently, it may very well be that this was a case of the best that the government can do to warn its citizens, but tragically the usual safety measures that people took were insufficient and overwhelmed due to the severity of the tornadoes that occurred. If there’s something that the government can do to better protect its citizens, or convey the danger, in future tornado outbreaks, they’ll do it. That’s what post-event investigations are all about.


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