Radar Characteristics of Supercell Thunderstorms Traversing the Appalachian Mountains

Katherine E. McKeown aThe Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

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Casey E. Davenport bUniversity of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina

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Matthew D. Eastin bUniversity of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina

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Sarah M. Purpura cVerisk Weather Solutions, Lexington, Massachusetts

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Roger R. Riggin IV bUniversity of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina

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Abstract

The evolution of supercell thunderstorms traversing complex terrain is not well understood and remains a short-term forecast challenge across the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. Although case studies have been conducted, there has been no large multicase observational analysis focusing on the central and southern Appalachians. To address this gap, we analyzed 62 isolated warm-season supercells that occurred in this region. Each supercell was categorized as either crossing (∼40%) or noncrossing (∼60%) based on their maintenance of supercellular structure while traversing prominent terrain. The structural evolution of each storm was analyzed via operationally relevant parameters extracted from WSR-88D radar data. The most significant differences in radar-observed structure among storm categories were associated with the mesocyclone; crossing storms exhibited stronger, wider, and deeper mesocyclones, along with more prominent and persistent hook echoes. Crossing storms also moved faster. Among the supercells that crossed the most prominent peaks and ridges, significant increases in base reflectivity, vertically integrated liquid, echo tops, and mesocyclone intensity/depth were observed, in conjunction with more frequent large hail and tornado reports, as the storms ascended windward slopes. Then, as the supercells descended leeward slopes, significant increases in mesocyclone depth and tornado frequency were observed. Such results reinforce the notion that supercell evolution can be modulated substantially by passage through and over complex terrain.

Significance Statement

Understanding of thunderstorm evolution and severe weather production in regions of complex terrain remains limited, particularly for storms with rotating updrafts known as supercell thunderstorms. This study provides a systematic analysis of numerous warm season supercell storms that moved through the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. We focus on operationally relevant radar characteristics and differences among storms that maintain supercellular structure as they traverse the terrain (crossing) versus those that do not (noncrossing). Our results identify radar characteristics useful in distinguishing between crossing and noncrossing storms, along with typical supercell evolution and severe weather production as storms cross the more prominent peaks and ridges of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains.

© 2024 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Matthew D. Eastin, mdeastin@charlotte.edu

Abstract

The evolution of supercell thunderstorms traversing complex terrain is not well understood and remains a short-term forecast challenge across the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. Although case studies have been conducted, there has been no large multicase observational analysis focusing on the central and southern Appalachians. To address this gap, we analyzed 62 isolated warm-season supercells that occurred in this region. Each supercell was categorized as either crossing (∼40%) or noncrossing (∼60%) based on their maintenance of supercellular structure while traversing prominent terrain. The structural evolution of each storm was analyzed via operationally relevant parameters extracted from WSR-88D radar data. The most significant differences in radar-observed structure among storm categories were associated with the mesocyclone; crossing storms exhibited stronger, wider, and deeper mesocyclones, along with more prominent and persistent hook echoes. Crossing storms also moved faster. Among the supercells that crossed the most prominent peaks and ridges, significant increases in base reflectivity, vertically integrated liquid, echo tops, and mesocyclone intensity/depth were observed, in conjunction with more frequent large hail and tornado reports, as the storms ascended windward slopes. Then, as the supercells descended leeward slopes, significant increases in mesocyclone depth and tornado frequency were observed. Such results reinforce the notion that supercell evolution can be modulated substantially by passage through and over complex terrain.

Significance Statement

Understanding of thunderstorm evolution and severe weather production in regions of complex terrain remains limited, particularly for storms with rotating updrafts known as supercell thunderstorms. This study provides a systematic analysis of numerous warm season supercell storms that moved through the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. We focus on operationally relevant radar characteristics and differences among storms that maintain supercellular structure as they traverse the terrain (crossing) versus those that do not (noncrossing). Our results identify radar characteristics useful in distinguishing between crossing and noncrossing storms, along with typical supercell evolution and severe weather production as storms cross the more prominent peaks and ridges of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains.

© 2024 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Matthew D. Eastin, mdeastin@charlotte.edu
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