Multiscale Overview of a Violent Tornado Outbreak with Attendant Flash Flooding

Joseph A. Rogash NOAA/NWS/Storm Prediction Center, Norman, Oklahoma

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Richard D. Smith National Weather Service, Tulsa, Oklahoma

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Abstract

On 1 March 1997 violent tornadoes caused numerous fatalities and widespread damage across portions of central and eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee. In addition, the associated thunderstorms produced very heavy rainfall and flash flooding, with a few locations receiving up to 150 mm (6 in.) of rainfall in 3 h. The initial environment appeared favorable for strong tornadoes with unseasonably warm moist air at lower levels resulting in significant instability (convective available potential energy values between 1400 and 1800 J kg−1) where 0–2-km storm-relative helicities exceeded 300 m2 s−2 and the middle-tropospheric storm-relative flow was conducive for tornadic supercells. The most destructive tornadoes developed along a preexisting surface boundary where lower-tropospheric moisture convergence and frontogenesis were enhanced. Tornadoes and heaviest rainfall only ensue after upward motion associated with the direct circulation of an upper-tropospheric jet streak became collocated with lower-tropospheric upward forcing along the surface boundaries. From a flash flood perspective the event occurred in a hybrid mesohigh-synoptic heavy rain pattern as thunderstorms developed and moved along surface boundaries aligned nearly parallel to the mean wind. In addition, strong flow and associated moisture flux convergence in the lower troposphere favored the formation of cells to the southwest or upstream of the initial convection with thunderstorms, including a a tornadic supercell, traversing over the same area. The available moisture and ambient instability also supported both vigorous updrafts and high precipitation rates.

Corresponding author address: Joseph A. Rogash, NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center, 1313 Halley Circle, Norman, OK 73069.

Email: rogash@spc.noaa.gov

Abstract

On 1 March 1997 violent tornadoes caused numerous fatalities and widespread damage across portions of central and eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee. In addition, the associated thunderstorms produced very heavy rainfall and flash flooding, with a few locations receiving up to 150 mm (6 in.) of rainfall in 3 h. The initial environment appeared favorable for strong tornadoes with unseasonably warm moist air at lower levels resulting in significant instability (convective available potential energy values between 1400 and 1800 J kg−1) where 0–2-km storm-relative helicities exceeded 300 m2 s−2 and the middle-tropospheric storm-relative flow was conducive for tornadic supercells. The most destructive tornadoes developed along a preexisting surface boundary where lower-tropospheric moisture convergence and frontogenesis were enhanced. Tornadoes and heaviest rainfall only ensue after upward motion associated with the direct circulation of an upper-tropospheric jet streak became collocated with lower-tropospheric upward forcing along the surface boundaries. From a flash flood perspective the event occurred in a hybrid mesohigh-synoptic heavy rain pattern as thunderstorms developed and moved along surface boundaries aligned nearly parallel to the mean wind. In addition, strong flow and associated moisture flux convergence in the lower troposphere favored the formation of cells to the southwest or upstream of the initial convection with thunderstorms, including a a tornadic supercell, traversing over the same area. The available moisture and ambient instability also supported both vigorous updrafts and high precipitation rates.

Corresponding author address: Joseph A. Rogash, NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center, 1313 Halley Circle, Norman, OK 73069.

Email: rogash@spc.noaa.gov

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