Southern Plains States Faced with Serious Flooding

The western troughing pattern, with occasional cut-off lows that have been hanging around the west coast have done good work in eliminating the drought that was entrenched in the Southern Plains past few years. The copious amounts of rain that have fallen in the last month or so has not only taken out a large part of the drought, but caused serious flooding issues in the region. This heavy rainfall stemmed from several storm types; rounds of trailing severe thunderstorms, large areas of stratiform rain as well as slow moving storms the would drop significant amounts of rain. These have all occurred in the Oklahoma/north Texas region since the end of April.

The flooding is not only wreaking havoc on farmers in the area, whose crops are struggling due to all the rain, but also the general population as several major highways in the region have been washed out and forced to close. Lake Eufalufa, one of Oklahoma’s major lakes is currently 14 feet above normal, causing many campsites nearby to be shut down. In Wichita Falls, Texas, neighbourhoods in low-lying areas were forced to evacuate ahead of the next system – the city announced they would be cutting power at all these neighbourhoods to prevent electrical fires. In Norman, Oklahoma, heavy rains from trailing storms turned parts of its Main Street into a fast flowing river this past week. It’s unclear how many people have been affected since the beginning of May throughout the south but two people are known to have died in the floods. The good news is the extreme drought, which covered 29% of the region last year, is now down to 0%.

Past 30-day rainfall in Oklahoma shows significant rainfall across much of the state, with a 495mm tally in Norman.
Past 30-day rainfall in Oklahoma shows significant rainfall across much of the state, with a 495mm tally in Norman.

More rain is in the forecast for most of these regions this weekend – with possibly another significant rainfall in the works. In some of the hardest hit areas, such as central Oklahoma, more than 75 additional millimetres could fall this weekend; flood watches are already in effect and meteorologists are urging residents to limit travel.

Multi-Day Severe Weather Setup Leads to Tornadoes, Flash Flooding in Oklahoma

Early May is typically when the severe weather season really ramps up in the US Plains and this week has certainly lived up to that. The region has seen severe weather every day since Wednesday and is expected to see more today. A western troughing pattern has been dominant the past few days, allowing a strong southerly flow to take place in the lower levels of the atmosphere – advecting in plenty of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico located nearby. High levels of instability, coupled with enough shear to support supercells was in place.

The worst day of the outbreak tornado-wise occurred on Wednesday where 48 tornadoes touched down from Nebraska, all the way down to Texas. A particularly dangerous situation unfolded in Oklahoma as a supercell with a history of producing tornadoes moved northeast along I-44 and through the large city of Norman where it dropped a tornado, later rated EF-1. The same supercell also produced an EF-2 tornado near Bridge Creek, shortly before it dropped the Norman tornado. Tornadoes were not the only threat on Wednesday; significant rains fell across Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City, which saw trailing supercells hit the city and as a result severe flash flooding. One person died from the storms, while a few dozen were injured. Ditches became raging creeks that spilled their banks onto highways and residential areas. It’s not uncommon to see supercells drop 100mm of rain or more in an hour. Radar indicated that some areas just southwest of Oklahoma City saw over 250mm on Wednesday. Numerous stations in the area broke their daily rainfall records from this event. A state of emergency was issued in 12 counties as a result of the storms.

Chickasha Supercell
The tornadic supercell that hit Norman in its early stages, showing an obvious hook. (Source: Radarscope)
Oklahoma Flooding Rains
Storm total accumulation for Wednesday through 9pm shows areas of over 250mm (pink areas). (Source: Radarscope)

More severe weather is expected today as the trough shifts slightly eastwards. There’s a chance that today could be the second significant tornado day in less than a week in the Plains – Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern Oklahoma regions are under the gun. However, there are still a few uncertainties due to the models showing some mid-day convection possibly limiting the heating. The Storm Prediction Center had issued a moderate risk for the region as of Friday night. Regardless of what happens in the first half of the day, there will be severe storms; residents in the region will have to keep an eye on the sky for large hail, severe winds, torrential rains and even tornadoes!

Elsewhere in Weather News: March 28th, 2015

First Significant Severe Weather Event of the Season Strikes Oklahoma

This past Wednesday severe storms erupted across much of Oklahoma bringing with them very large hail and even tornadoes. It was the biggest severe weather day this year in the states, up to now (but many more are to come). A surface low was located in central Oklahoma with dryline extending southward, cold front crashing south from the north side of the low, and a warm front extending northeastwards from the low. There were two main focus areas for the storms – along the dryline and near the triple point/along the warm front. A moderate risk was issued by the SPC and covered the areas of concern. The outlook also included a 5% tornado risk with 45% hatched hail probabilities. A moderate jet streak was in place with dewpoints in the high teens, which together provided sufficient shear and CAPE for supercells.

As expected, several storms initiated on Wednesday afternoon and grew into supercells. Two supercells were of most concern before storms consolidated into squall lines: one near Tulsa and one near Oklahoma City. The storm that approached Tulsa showed strong rotation on radar early in its lifetime –a tornado warning was able to be issued well before it hit the city. By the time it reached a suburb of Tulsa, Sand Springs, a tornado touched down and tore through a trailer park. In addition to that, hail, the size of tennis balls, were reported in Tulsa’s metro region as the supercell’s hail core passed over the city. The tornado (preliminary rating of EF-2) injured over a dozen people and one person lost their life in the trailer park.

Aerial view of the damage to the trailer park in Sand Springs. (Source: Tulsa World)
Aerial view of the damage to the trailer park in Sand Springs. (Source: Tulsa World)

The Oklahoma City storm fired off the dryline initially but then got undercut by the cold front – meaning it had little tornado potential. Interestingly enough, the supercell was able to catch up to the cold front and interact with it, enhancing the vorticity in the area – likely being a contributing factor to the formation of the tornado. With this mesoscale interaction playing a significant part in the cause of the tornado, not much lead time was provided to residents (it happened quickly). Unfortunately the twister (preliminary rating of EF-1) touched down in the city of Moore, OK which got hit by a devastating twister in 2013 and had seen two other strong tornadoes since 1999. No injuries were associated with this one, thankfully.

Compilation of radar images before/during/after the Moore tornado showing the storm's interaction with the cold front. (Image compilation by @VORTEXJeff / Twitter)
Compilation of radar images before/during/after the Moore tornado showing the storm’s interaction with the cold front. (Image compilation by @VORTEXJeff / Twitter)

The pattern could become active again by the middle of next week, but it is still too early to be certain. April to late May is typically the busiest time of the year for severe weather in the Southern US Plains, due to plentiful moisture before the jet stream shifts further north for the summer.

Elsewhere in Weather News: December 21st, 2013

Southern Ontario, Midsection of US Anticipate Ice Storm

A major ice storm has been taking shape as of Friday night across parts of Oklahoma and Texas and will continue to push northeast. A potent cold front with Arctic air filtering in behind it is clashing with gulf moisture moving north and thereby creating prime conditions for ice accumulation from Oklahoma all the way to southern Ontario. Dangerous travel conditions are expected as there could be significant ice accumulation due prolonged periods of freezing rain through this weekend. With this comes the possibility of downed power lines so residents have been made aware to prepare for power outages across southern Ontario. So overall, not ideal conditions for holiday travel this weekend as all kinds of precipitation will be falling across the eastern half of the US and southern Ontario.


Freezing rain sounding from Oklahoma on Friday evening. Note the shallow freezing layer near the surface where the arrow is. (Souce: Twisterdata)
Freezing rain sounding from Oklahoma on Friday evening. Note the shallow freezing layer near the surface where the arrow is. (Souce: Twisterdata)

Freezing rain forms when there is a deep layer of warm air that is above freezing aloft. As the ice crystals fall and meet the warm layer, they melt and become raindrops while falling towards the ground. A shallow layer of cold air just above the surface of the earth must also be present for freezing rain to form. Supercooled water droplets – drops of liquid water that exist in below freezing air, will be in place and won’t have enough time to freeze into ice pellets, thus will freeze (as ice) on contact as they hit the ground.

In addition to this, a severe weather outbreak is expected in Dixie Alley of the US today. The outbreak is associated with the same system as the cold front slices through the warm, moist air mass in place. A moderate risk has been issued by the Storm Prediction Center as well as a 15% hatched area for tornadoes in Mississippi and northern Louisiana. Chances of tornadoes are quite high, the only possible limiting factor is that CAPE will be fairly low (only around 500-1000J/kg) but this will still be sufficient for supercells which will quickly evolve into a quasi-linear convective system – a line of severe thunderstorms that can have bowing segments. SPC gives fairly strong wording for today in Dixie Alley saying that “there is potential for several tornadoes – some of which should be strong”.

By Monday night the system will have moved off the US East Coast but will still be a weather-maker for Atlantic Canada.