From space: video of five days of tornadoes

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2011 3:32 pm

Over the past few days, huge storms have exploded over the US midwest. The GOES 13 geostationary weather satellite had a birds-eye view of the whole thing, and its images were used to make animation showing five days of meteorological action:

Wow. It’s positively creepy how those cells burst into life with what looks like no trigger or precursor. They’re just suddenly there. Terrifying.

I was in Kansas over the weekend for my nephew’s college graduation (congrats Derek!), and literally minutes before the ceremony was to start there was a tornado warning. We had to huddle in the building’s basement for about 45 minutes before the all-clear was sounded; the tornado spotted was to the northwest and missed us (although right as the warning started I was able to get a picture of the weird rolling mammatus clouds overhead).

After the ceremony we saw the storm raging to the north of us, and I got this photo of it:

That’s a several second exposure at (I think) f/8. The lightning was never more than 5 – 10 seconds away for quite some time. It was awe-inspiring.

The next day we left Lawrence to come home, and a fierce black cloud stretched from horizon to horizon to our west. It missed us, and by the time we got on the road it was gone… but I have to wonder if that was the same storm system that produced the tornado that swept through Joplin, Missouri. I’ve never seen an actual tornado in real life, but that’s as close as I ever want to come.

If you want to help folks whose lives have been affected by these storms, The Nation has a list of charities and other organizations helping out in Missouri.

Video credit: Movie Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters

Related posts:

Severe storms seen over US seen from space
Tornado tracks from space
A tornado made of fire. Seriously.
Another tornado MADE OF FIRE. Waiting now for tornado made of locusts

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Comments (32)

  1. Justin Ogleby

    I don’t think it was the same system that went through Joplin, but it was the one that destroyed Reading, KS.

  2. Your yfrog link is broken. (Bad froggie!)

  3. @Ken B: Seems to be yfrog’s fault. If you go to then click on the picture in question, it gives the link he posted.

  4. Thea

    That photo with the lightning – exactly when did you take it? It looks like it was taken at night, but if I’m guessing correctly, it would have been taken maybe late afternoon.
    I’ve never seen a storm that could turn day into night. That would be just scary.

  5. chris j.

    having nothing to do with tornados, storms, or weather in general, but,

    rock chalk, jayhawk, KU!

  6. Daniel J. Andrews

    My folks were (and are) driving through the states and hit part of one of those systems. Hailstones dented the truck and broke the windows on the trailer. Their friends later held them hostage (figuratively speaking) and wouldn’t let them drive (naive Canadians that my folks tend to be) in that weather. They later made a run west to Utah but hit another bad system on the way and had to pull off the road. What a role reversal…the children worrying about their reckless elderly parents who are freewheeling all over the continent.

  7. I was out jogging last week in a downpour, and saw what happened to look like a funnel cloud off in the distance. Eager to get in out of the rain, I didn’t pay too much attention to it and huffed home.

    I found my wife standing by the door freaking out. Apparently it was a tornado, and she was getting ready to grab the car and rush down to pick me up. It was sort of an anticlimactic way to see my first tornado, but I’m lucky it didn’t come my way!

  8. Paula Helm Murray

    When we graduated in 1978, we had the quickest commencement ceremony every because a storm like that blew up just as we finished marching down to the stadium and sitting down. Lightning started going off not right overhead, but close enough, everyone started getting edgy and finally the chancellor went, “I’d like to make a speech but the weather is getting to bad. You’re all graduated, now head for cover!”

    We had a weird day to day of mixed weather with enough energy to spawn some small funnels and a couple of tornadoes that affected Sedalia. They even evacuated a lot of downtown buildings to their tornado shelters because it looked like it was going to spawn one down there (I live Real Near downtown, just south of 31st off of Gillham). Because it looked bad, I went down to the basement for a bit with the first floor TV turned up Real Loud, laptop, phone, purse and the two cats that would come willingly. Fortunately it blew over by about 1:30 pm and I got to run errands.

  9. HvP

    I was outside last night trying to take some long exposure pictures of the frenetic lightning in the storm that swept over us in the Dallas area. It was only about 30 minutes after I came inside that golf ball sized hail began denting up all of our cars. It looks like two or three tornadoes formed in this area, one of them passing about 10 miles south of me.

    Oh, and I’ll try to close those italics tags…

  10. HvP

    I tried to pull EXIF info from that photo above but it did not have the exposure time embedded. Usually you do need several seconds to capture lightning like that, but it looks like you had a good, safe, view from that distance.

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    Spectacular video taken from a great vantage point there. Terrible consequences on the ground though. :-(

    A trifle off-topic I’m afraid but thinking of stuff seen from satellites this :

    (or alternatively see here : )

    piece of news seen today is kinda interesting too.

    On the main page for the BBC world news that “satellite discovers new [old] pyramids” story was / is the most popular story too with this one :

    which may be familiar on the most distant GRB yet ranking third. :-)

  12. Jamey

    Considering how poor the resolution on those weather satellites is – it’s no surprise the triggers are invisible. Anyone who’s ever watched a super-saturated solution crystallize shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing – seriously!

  13. Aaron

    See that large cyclone springing up right at the end of the video? The leading edge of that thing reached me, here in Cincinnati, OH, precisely as I clicked the link to this blog, Phil, COINCIDENCE?!

    Yes, of course it is–what do you think I am, crazy? Although it certianly does appear as though folks in the Great Plains have discovered a way to control the weather, and are now waging war on the eastern half of the United States.

  14. Jeffersonian

    We were doing the drive back from Kansas one time in the 90s and hit a tornado right on the Colo border. The sky ahead was so incredibly dark . We parked under an overpass and watched it go by.

  15. The Mutt

    That big spiral at around the 4o second mark really freaked me out. After Alabama and Joplin, I keep imagining tornadoes that are miles wide.

  16. Ron1

    Phil Plait said, “Wow. It’s positively creepy how those cells burst into life with what looks like no trigger or precursor. They’re just suddenly there.”


    While they do appear to ‘suddenly’ be there, those supercells certainly didn’t burst into life without a trigger or precursor. As you know, there is no such thing as magic — basic physics yes, magic no.

    A quick look at the surface and constant pressure charts for that period show all the ingredients were in place for a truly nasty day (ie. moisture, shear, convective potential, mid-upper level support, jetstream, etc, etc). As well, the 12z atmospheric soundings (as indicated by tephigrams for reporting sites along the storm track) also showed high potential for severe weather.

    Further, for those who know what to look for, a lot of the features depicted on the surface and constant pressure charts are clearly visible on the GOES sat pics you present. Of course, supporting detail is visible using the water vapour and IR imagery.

    In the end, science has given forecasters and the public tools to anticipate and prepare for these deadly events with a reasonable level of reliability.


  17. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    I was in Kansas . . .

    Sniff the air. I don’t think you’re in Kansas any more.


  18. Rift

    I live just NE of Lawrence, that was a fun, fun night.

    I have a storm shelter in my basement and about five minutes after the sirens went off (I was outside shooting video to scare my english fiancee with, lol) my brother’s van rolled up, unloading his three screaming, crying kids and his ex-wife. She lives in a damn trailer, dang things should be outlawed in Tornado Alley.

    The sirens here blew for one and a half HOURS.

    Nigel, bite me, nothing is as sweet as clean, clear Kansas air. 😛 And YES we teach evolution here, the BOE was overturned years ago without a cent being charged to the tax payer, unlike Dover.

    Just ask Phil, and his nephew, who I believe was studying Biology? In Kansas? gasp… lol

    I’ve seen several tornadoes, one less than a mile from my house. In Kansas you kind of get use to the weather, you never take it for granted, or ignore it. You always have a respect for them and take them seriously, but you get use to them to where you don’t panic.

  19. Chris A.

    No comment–just trying to close the open italic tag that’s giving everyone’s comments a rightward slant.

  20. Gary

    Not only can we not see the water vapor before it condenses; we can’t see the massive amount of energy convected from the ground to the upper troposphere. The destruction on the ground only suggests the number of joules involved with the whole dynamic system of a supercell.

  21. Ron1

    @20. Gary said, ” Not only can we not see the water vapor before it condenses; we can’t see the massive amount of energy convected from the ground to the upper troposphere.”


    Gary, actually, we can ‘see’ both. For example, surface observations (hourly) and twice daily balloon soundings (not to mention satellite soundings) record temperature, dewpoint and wind, etc.

    From these data sources a profile of temperature, water vapor, and wind is drawn which depicts the actual values along the vertical profile and at the point of surface observation . From these observations, the buoyant energy along that profile, at that location at that point in time is derived. When a bunch of locations are combined together they give you a good picture over a given spatial expanse.

    Keep in mind, however, that the vertical profile is for a fixed period in time (ie. daily at 12:00z and 24:00z — 6am and 6pm local MDT) and that the atmosphere is constantly in motion (vertically and horizontally) and that dynamics are constantly evolving.

    Regardless, by taking the morning obs and soundings and factoring the forecast afternoon temperature and humidity you can derive (make a really good guess) at the amount of convected energy you’re looking at later in the day.


  22. ChuckB

    We’re all here at the sufferance of Mother Nature (or whatever) and if she decides she doesn’t like us anymore — fugidaboudit!

  23. zeke


    Gary: “Not only can we not see the water vapor before it condenses;”

    Ever heard of water vapor channel on the NOAA GOES satellite? It can “see” water vapor just fine.


    Jamey: “Considering how poor the resolution on those weather satellites is – it’s no surprise the triggers are invisible.”

    Ugh. Mostly false. Be surprised. GOES imagery is useful.

    The NOAA GOES satellite have a resolution of 1-km (visible light) from an altitude of 35,790km (geostationary orbit). Pretty darn good given that they inevitably drift around a point in space and mechanisms move in the spacecraft while scanning. Forecasters often see precursors — boundaries, cloud lines and buildups in this imagery and, based on experience, know that thunderstorms will soon develop and issue a watch.

    As I write this, a perfect example:


    This is a commentary from SPC meteorologists using GOES satellite imagery to observe the cloud field and noticing over a multi-state area that cumulus clouds are building upwards, and some will soon become thunderstorms. With additional observations and model trends, they may issue a watch.

    Only NOAA GOES satellites can ‘stare’ at a particular region (as this low-resolution movie Phil linked above show) . Polar orbiters cannot do this.

    A little further digging into the SPC archives reveals a better example usefullness of NOAA GOES imagery:


    And here’s the watch box with radar overlaid:

    Nothing! This watch was for the resulting tornado outbreak that occurred in OK, KS and TX. NOAA GOES satellite imagery often helps us to determine the location and timing of these watch boxes. 1-km resolution is very useful Jamey.

  24. DrFlimmer

    Wow. Your image of the lightning is incredible! Almost terrifying.

  25. Rift

    And the lightning in that storm wasn’t *that* bad. I’ve seen much, much worse hereabouts.

  26. CameronSS

    So you drove through Topeka and did NOT stop to say hello to me? Jerk. See if I ever come back to your blog….

    …yeah, I will.

  27. CR

    Although I have not been directly involved in a tornado such as the ones that have been ravaging the US over the past several days, I have been in severe weather and used to be a weather spotter in my local communty. (Think storm chaser, but without the chase part… several of us would take up positions around the community outskirts and report to our central base–in this case the fire station in town–what we could see rolling in, such as ligtning, estimated wind speeds, cloud formations, hail and so on. Our reports gave the town precious minutes of advanced warning that RADAR reports just weren’t detailed enough to convey. Unfortunately, spotting at night was next to impossible, and a lot more scary since it was so hard to see what, if anything, was coming. But I digress…)
    Now that the background info’s out of the way, I’d like to respond to Thea’s comment (#4) about storms turning day into night…
    Shortly after I no longer did weather spotting, I got caught by a severe storm in a small midwest city in the mid-afternoon, around 4PM local time. The clouds blew up rapidly (I want to avoid saying “out of nowhere,” but it happened so fast over a span of only twenty minutes or so that the phrase feels appropriate), and I knew the area was potentially in for a beating… within a few minutes, the cloud cover got so thick, the darkness tripped all the city’s streetlight sensors, causing them to come on as though night had fallen. It wasn’t quite as dark as night, mind you, but still pretty darned dark.
    The storm blasted through town, with straight-line winds knocking over several trees, which in turn snapped power lines, blocked several roads and damaged a few houses. Fortunately, that was the worst of the damage, and no tornado was spawned. Don’t be fooled, though… straight-line winds can be just as deadly if you’re caught by thrown/falling debris! (For yet another digression on my part, I was once in my car in a torrential downpour accompanied by 50-60 MPH wind gusts that lasted for a few minutes… I’d parked the car on the road’s shoulder, but the wind blasted so fiercely & steadily that I felt as though I was still travelling at highway speed!)
    By the way, mammatus clouds are always incredible to look at, but they are particularly striking near sunset, when the sun is so low on the horizon that the clouds’ cottonball-like appearance is enhanced a hundredfold. People unaccustomed to looking at the sky* are, in my experience, often shocked by the weirdness of these clouds, but also awestruck by their beauty.

    *I’ve actually been called weird for some of the cloudscape photography I’ve done over the years: “What gives? They’re just clouds. You’re so weird!”
    Sigh. Remind me not to mention to that individual that I’ve also photographed stars at night.

  28. I noticed something interesting, it looked like the land around the Mississippi River and around the Great Lakes region were browner than other areas. It makes me wonder how much desertification is happening in those areas and to what extent global warming is having on the recent weather patterns.

    Even the East Coast looked browner.

  29. Maria

    I drove up into North Georgia this week and got a glimpse of the damages from the april tornadoes. What a crazy season it’s been. (Also trying to close the italics) Woot! I think that did it? Or not… The preview shows it works…. Carry on.

  30. newq

    Oh cool, I didn’t know you were in Kansas. I’m in Kansas, and I spent most of the night that night watching those very storms you photographed, though from about a hundred miles to the west. For hours the lightning lit up the night. It was like a constant rain of light bombs on the horizon.

  31. Most recently I noticed USA is hitting by lots of hurricanes! But one of my students of natural disaster informed me the current scenario of some south Asian countries. She informed me that India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia etc. countries are enjoying more good times year after year. I mean natural disasters like hurricanes are nowadays hitting this part of the world. But the question is why?

    For global warming? May be. But we have to research more before we come to this conclusion…

    By the way videos are really scared me…


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