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2011 Year in Review: The Year of the Tornado

Posted on Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 5:00 PM MST

2011 has shattered all sorts of weather records across the United States. In Oklahoma alone, the state recorded one of its biggest snowfalls on record in February. It was followed by a very active spring tornado season and the hottest summer on record. Fall brought 3 of the 4 strongest earthquakes on record, and the state's strongest November tornado (an EF-4) all within 48 hours of each other. I chased a few record events in Florida as well, and ended the year with some amazing weather shots. Here's a recap of the highlights of my 2011 chasing.

January Starts Fast in Florida

2011 started very quickly on the west coast of Florida. A strong front moved into the Tampa area on January 17. The leading edge of the front encounter some favorable wind shear and did briefly become tornadic (conveniently while I was right underneath it. I observed numerous funnel clouds move across the mouth of Tampa Bay, but the system only produced one actual tornado near Myakka Head. I tried to document the funnel clouds, but heavy rain made it nearly impossible.

Violent Squall Line Comes Ashore on January 25, 2011.

Huge success came very early in the year. An explosive front moved into Florida on January 25. The SPC had pegged the Tampa Bay area as ground zero for a few days. On the morning of the 25th, it did appear that the setup would be a bit more linear, but the instability ahead of the front was some of the strongest I've ever seen in Florida during the winter.

As instability peaked in the early afternoon, an area of favorable shear developed just offshore, making the area ripe for tornadoes. Everything began to rapidly rotate as the system came ashore, and as expected, did become tornadic. I set up in a spot where I had a good chance of seeing tornadoes, and also in a prime spot to get pasted by straight-line winds.

I ended up getting within a few miles of a couple of the tornadoes that day, but opted to focus my chase on documenting the violent straight-line winds. The decision paid off big time, as I documented straight line winds gusting close to 110 mph. 14 Tornado Warnings were issued for the Tampa/St. Pete metro area between 5:00 and 7:00 PM. The storm collapsed a gas station canopy and tore roofs off of buildings just northwest of downtown St. Petersburg. Official storm surveys from the National Weather Service put sustained straight-line winds around 90 mph.

West Florida Tornado Outbreak

On March 31st, 9 tornadoes broke out across West-Central Florida. The tornadoes left heavy damage in Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Polk Counties. The first Tornado Warnings went up around 8:30 AM for a tornado near Lutz. The twister barreled east before dissipating in Polk County. Warnings continued to go up non-stop throughout the morning.

Tornadic Squall Line Intercept on March 31, 2011

The main squall line came ashore around 11 AM, with a very definitive tornado on radar west of Indian Rocks Beach. A Tornado Warning was issued for Pinellas County. The twister plowed through Indian Rocks Beach around 11:15, tearing roofs off of houses. It continued east, collapsing a hangar at the St. Pete/Clearwater Airport, and flipped an 18-wheeler as it crossed Interstate 275 near the south end of the Howard Frankland Bridge before destroying the Progress Village neighborhood in South Tampa.

The main tornado ended up being rated a very strong EF-1, with winds topping out at 105 mph (winds of 110 mph would be an EF-2). The parent cell did cycle a few times, and produced three more tornadoes, including one that hit the Lakeland Airport, destroying numerous planes at the Sun 'n' Fun Air Show.

I thought about trying to get in front of the tornado as it crossed the bay, but opted against it for safety reasons. One of the most important safety rules of recreational storm chasing is to never put yourself directly in the path of a tornado, especially when you can't see it and have no escape route, which was the case here. The Gandy Bridge was not the place to be trapped with a tornado bearing down on you. More tornadic activity was being reported further to the south, so I dropped down to the beach and tried my luck out there. I didn't get the incredible shot of a tornado I was hoping for, but did get some pretty amazing footage of more violent winds as the system came ashore.

Quick Recap of the Summer Season in Florida

August 8, 2011 Lightning Strike near Norman, Oklahoma

The summer season ended up being pretty quiet, but when I did manage to get out, the photos turned out amazing. I documented one very photogenic isolated severe thunderstorm in Hillsborough County on June 17th. I also got some incredible lightning pictures, one on July 2nd/3rd in St. Petersburg, and the other on August 8th here in Norman. I also successfully documented mammatus clouds over St. Petersburg on July 22nd. All photos from the summer can be seen under the "Photos" tab above.

Explosive Severe Thunderstorms Break Out Near Oklahoma City

Exploding Towers SE of Oklahoma City on October 22, 2011.

One of the most spectacular storms I've ever documented occurred on October 22nd, as explosive severe storms broke out across the Oklahoma City metro area. The storms were not tornadic, but did pack gusty winds and dropped large hail just southwest of the metro. The storms were so spectacular because they occurred right at sunset, so the towers were all colored the deep blues, purples, and oranges normally associated with sunsets. It also was amazing how quickly these storms formed and went Severe Warned. It's been really fun watching these storms, especially when they occur right in your own back yard.

Oklageddon: Earthquakes, Tornadoes, and Records, Oh My!

If there's one word to describe the events that unfolded on November 7th in central and western Oklahoma it would definitely be "absurd." The events, which have since been dubbed Oklageddon, shattered records and put the the cherry on top of the 2011 chase season. To get the full experience of Oklageddon, you need to back up a couple days to November 5th. Around 2 AM, a powerful 4.7 magnitude earthquake centered about 45 miles northeast of Oklahoma City shook the southern plains, leaving minor damage in a small radius around the epicenter. I thankfully slept through it. At the time, this was the second-strongest earthquake in state history, behind a 5.3 magnitude quake that hit El Reno in the 1950s. The 4.7 didn't stay second strongest very long.

At 10:53 PM Central Time on November 5th, the first record went down hard. A 5.6 magnitude earthquake, centered very close to the first one, rocked Oklahoma. This quake easily became the strongest in state history. It was definitely unnerving for my first earthquake experience, and would have knocked me right on my keester had it not been for the wall right behind me to catch me. Feel free to read my blog post about the earthquakes for all the juicy details. Also, as a fun fact, this record-breaking quake would have been a lot closer to the old record if the 5.5 earthquake that occurred in the 1880s was included. Oklahoma, however, was still the Indian Territory then, so it doesn't qualify to be included in the state records.

Looking Southwest Between 2 Tornadic Supercells from Hinton, Oklahoma on November 7, 2011.

Daylight on the morning of November 6th revealed more extensive damage from the 5.6 quake, with significant damage being reported as nearby as Shawnee. Since we live in the heart of Tornado Alley, people are not exposed to earthquakes very often, so as more small tremors rumbled through the area on November 6th, more and more people were begging for tornadoes. As it turns out, that saying “Be Careful What You Wish For” couldn't have been more true.

On November 7th, six tornadoes broke out across western and southwestern Oklahoma. The next record was shattered in the early afternoon as Oklahoma recorded its strongest ever November tornado, an EF-4, that occured near Tipton (don't worry, these tornadoes did no damage other than topple a couple Mesonet towers). My chase began mid-afternoon with 2 Tornado-Warned Supercells barreling up the Oklahoma prairie towards Interstate 40. My initial target was the western cell, which was headed in the general direction of Weatherford. I pulled off I-40 in Hinton, OK between the two supercells to reassess the situation around 4 PM. I sat in Hinton for about 20 minutes pondering my next move before the western cell started to weaken, while the eastern cell began re-intensifying. The most direct route to that storm's base involved a core punch (and this cell had a history of producing strong tornadoes), so I opted to take the safer long way around the storm and gambled I could get on the tornado before sundown.

Looking West Towards the Base of the Supercell near Fort Cobb, Oklahoma on November 7, 2011.

I doubled back and dropped south on US-81 down the eastern flank of the storm and got on Highway 9 headed west towards Fort Cobb and the storm's hook. I came into Caddo County shortly before the Tornado Warning was issued, and finally got under the base a few minutes after sunset. Losing light fast, I blasted north to get out in front of the base. You could definitely tell there was something under the base, but it was too dark to tell if it was the actual tornado or rain wrapping around the tornado. By then, it was way too dark to get any pictures, so I just watched it until it was practically dark at which point I realized it could be dangerous being potentially in the path of a multi-vortex wedge tornado I couldn't see, so I turned around and began the drive back to Norman.

Not more than 2 minutes after I sat down for dinner when I got home, another 4.7 earthquake came rumbling through, polishing off an absolutely epic finale to the 2011 fall chasing season. In one weekend, we got the strongest earthquake in state history, the strongest November tornado in state history, and the 2 third-strongest earthquakes in state history. After going out with such a bang in 2011, you can only begin to wonder what 2012 will bring.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Posted In: Chase Recaps

Tagged: Year In Review