Dramatic imagery from space and on the ground captures 10 days of extreme weather fueled by El Ni√Īo

By Tom Yulsman | February 6, 2016 3:23 pm
Ten days of extreme weather

Data from multiple satellites were used as part of the NASA IMERG program to produce an animation showing estimated precipitation over the U.S. lower 48 states and surrounding areas from Jan. 25 through Feb. 3. The most extreme precipitation ‚ÄĒ 7.9 inches in total ‚ÄĒ occurred over Mississippi and Alabama.
(Source: NASA/JAXA/SSAI, Hal Pierce)

Juiced up by El Ni√Īo, extreme weather raked the United States from the last week of January through the beginning of February.

And thanks to satellites above, as well as cameras on the ground, we can witness all of the action ‚ÄĒ¬†with synoptic¬†views of a swirling winter storm and a beautiful visualization of total precipitation; a closer view of the atmosphere bubbling like stew in a¬†cauldron; a look right into the heart of a massive thunderstorm; and right down to an individual tornado touching down near a house in Georgia, prompting a little girl to ask her mom, “Are we gonna’ die?”

Let’s start with the¬†animation above, which captures a full 10¬†days of the extreme weather. Using data acquired by a constellation of¬†satellites, it shows estimated precipitation¬†between¬†Jan. 25 and Feb. 3, providing¬†a kind of timeline for¬†all of the action.

Toward the beginning of the animation, on Jan. 26th, look for a line of storms developing over Louisiana and Mississippi. The storminess then spreads to Florida on the 27th, where twisters tossed cars about with abandon. This was actually just the latest in a terrible spate of tornados to hit Florida, which experienced more than double the normal activity during January.

The storminess continues out over the Atlantic, but divert your attention up to the Pacific Northwest and watch the gradual spread of green, yellow and orange colors indicative of accumulating precipitation.

Then, on January 31st, the action spreads south into California with a storm born in warm Pacific waters and swept ashore by a sub-tropical jet stream on El Ni√Īo steroids.¬†After adding to California’s much need snowpack, this storm spins up across the desert Southwest, and then takes¬†its time over¬†Colorado, dumping 16 inches along the Front Range where I live.

We’re now toward the end of the animation, but there’s still a lot of extreme action to come… ¬†Northeast¬†across the High Plains the¬†storm¬†goes, traced in the animation by spreading tones of green and yellow indicative of accumulating snowfall. It then lumbers and thunders into Wisconsin, where it does, indeed, spawn thundersnow (thunder, lightning¬†and snow together).

The most extreme weather happens next, and only a little bit of it is captured by the animation above. So next, have a look at this Tweet, with a video capturing the stunning impact of a tornado that ripped into a high school campus in Tennessee:

That was just one of at least a dozen tornados in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia during Tuesday and Wednesday. Feb. 2 and Feb. 3.

Check out this¬†video of a twister that touched down in Fort Stewart, Georgia on¬†Feb. 3¬†‚ÄĒ and listen for the child who asks her mother¬†whether they are going to perish:

Here’s what happened:¬†As the snowstorm blew up through the Midwest, a cold front ahead of it collided with warm, moist air drawn up from the Gulf of Mexico. You can see the clash in this satellite image showing atmospheric water vapor:

Check out the powerful, cyclonic winter storm over the heartland, with copious moisture indicated by a big blob of magenta over the Upper Midwest. Also look closely along the storm’s eastern flank. Here, you¬†can make out smaller blobs of magenta indicative of¬†thunderstorms starting to form¬†over Mississippi and Tennessee.

Right along that line of collision between the cold air and the warm, moist air streaming up from the Gulf, it was as if the atmosphere was a boiling cauldron. And that’s exactly what it looks like¬†in this remarkable animation of GOES-14 weather satellite images showing thunderstorms bubbling up over Mississippi and Alabama:

Extreme weather over Mississippi and Alabama

The development of tornado-spawning thunderstorms in eastern Mississippi into western Alabama on Feb. 2 and 3 is captured in this animation of images from the GOES-14 weather satellite. The red boxes show counties where tornados were reported. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog.)

GOES-14 is actually a spare satellite that operates between two others ‚ÄĒ one that covers the western portion of the United States and the other the eastern part. It is being used by scientists¬†in experiments designed to pave the way for a new satellite called GOES-R, which will have much greater capabilities than the current generation of satellites.

As part of those experiments, GOES-14 can be put into “rapid scan” mode, in which it captures an image¬†every minute, as opposed to every 15 minutes for its two siblings. That’s what went into the animation¬†above.

One-minute imagery like this “is amazing,” says¬†Bill Line, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma’s Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. “You can see convection as it is developing ‚ÄĒ individual features bubbling.”

A synoptic view of extreme weather over the United States in February 2016.

A sprawling line of thunderstorms from the U.S. Gulf Coast up through a large section of the Southeast was spied by the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument on February 2, 2016. (Source: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.)

The image above, from the Suomi NPP satellite, shows a more synoptic view of the storms. The sharp line between clouds and clear skies on the lefthand side marks the position of the advancing cold front.

Now, let’s zoom in close¬†‚ÄĒ right into the very heart of a cluster of thunderstorms:

3-D satellite view of extreme weather

3-D view¬†of violent thunderstorms over North Carolina and Virginia, created using data from NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement satellite. (Source: NASA/JAXA/SSAI, Hal Pierce)

This three-dimensional view, created with data collected by NASA’s GPM satellite, shows a cross section through violent thunderstorms over North Carolina and Virginia on Feb. 3. The deepest red colors show where precipitation was heaviest. Estimated rainfall here¬†exceeded four inches per hour.

The storminess then continued into February 4th, with heavy rain from the southern Mid-Atlantic Coast and up into New England.

Here’s NASA warning about what we can expect in weeks to come: “Due to the current strong El Nino, extreme precipitation events are expected to continue through the winter.”

That may well be true for large parts of the United States. But will it be true for California, which is still in desperate need of precipitation to relieve an epic drought?

There are some concerning¬†signs from weather model forecasts that California could dry out this month, just when it should be getting a thorough dousing from El Ni√Īo. But as I’m writing this, these long-range forecasts don’t have¬†enough “skill” yet to offer anything we can bet on with confidence.

Stay tuned…



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar