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Jerald A. Brotzge, Steven E. Nelson, Richard L. Thompson, and Bryan T. Smith

Abstract

The ability to provide advanced warning on tornadoes can be impacted by variations in storm mode. This research evaluates 2 yr of National Weather Service (NWS) tornado warnings, verification reports, and radar-derived convective modes to appraise the ability of the NWS to warn across a variety of convective modes and environmental conditions. Several specific hypotheses are considered: (i) supercell morphologies are the easiest convective modes to warn for tornadoes and yield the greatest lead times, while tornadoes from more linear, nonsupercell convective modes, such as quasi-linear convective systems, are more difficult to warn for; (ii) parameters such as tornado distance from radar, population density, and tornado intensity (F scale) introduce significant and complex variability into warning statistics as a function of storm mode; and (iii) tornadoes from stronger storms, as measured by their mesocyclone strength (when present), convective available potential energy (CAPE), vertical wind shear, and significant tornado parameter (STP) are easier to warn for than tornadoes from weaker systems. Results confirmed these hypotheses. Supercell morphologies caused 97% of tornado fatalities, 96% of injuries, and 92% of damage during the study period. Tornado warnings for supercells had a statistically higher probability of detection (POD) and lead time than tornado warnings for nonsupercells; among supercell storms, tornadoes from supercells in lines were slightly more difficult to warn for than tornadoes from discrete or clusters of supercells. F-scale intensity and distance from radar had some impact on POD, with less impact on lead times. Higher mesocyclone strength (when applicable), CAPE, wind shear, and STP values were associated with greater tornado POD and lead times.

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Jonathan M. Garner, William C. Iwasko, Tyler D. Jewel, Richard L. Thompson, and Bryan T. Smith

Abstract

A dataset maintained by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) of 6300 tornado events from 2009 to 2015, consisting of radar-identified convective modes and near-storm environmental information obtained from Rapid Update Cycle and Rapid Refresh model analysis grids, has been augmented with additional radar information related to the low-level mesocyclones associated with tornado longevity, pathlength, and width. All EF2–EF5 tornadoes [as measured on the enhanced Fujita (EF) scale], in addition to randomly selected EF0–EF1 tornadoes, were extracted from the SPC dataset, which yielded 1268 events for inclusion in the current study. Analysis of those data revealed similar values of the effective-layer significant tornado parameter for the longest-lived (60+ min) tornadic circulations, longest-tracked (≥68 km) tornadoes, and widest tornadoes (≥1.2 km). However, the widest tornadoes occurring west of −94° longitude were associated with larger mean-layer convective available potential energy, storm-top divergence, and low-level rotational velocity. Furthermore, wide tornadoes occurred when low-level winds were out of the southeast, resulting in large low-level hodograph curvature and near-surface horizontal vorticity that was more purely streamwise when compared with long-lived and long-tracked events. On the other hand, tornado pathlength and longevity were maximized with eastward-migrating synoptic-scale cyclones associated with strong southwesterly wind profiles through much of the troposphere, fast storm motions, large values of bulk wind difference and storm-relative helicity, and lower buoyancy.

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Ariel E. Cohen, Joel B. Cohen, Richard L. Thompson, and Bryan T. Smith

Abstract

This study presents the development and testing of two statistical models that simulate tornado potential and wind speed. This study reports on the first-ever development of two multiple regression–based models to assist warning forecasters in statistically simulating tornado probability and tornado wind speed in a diagnostic manner based on radar-observed tornado signature attributes and one environmental parameter. Based on a robust database, the radar-based storm-scale circulation attributes (strength, height above ground, clarity) combine with the effective-layer significant tornado parameter to establish a tornado probability. The second model adds the categorical presence (absence) of a tornadic debris signature to derive the tornado wind speed. While the fits of these models are considered somewhat modest, their regression coefficients generally offer physical consistency, based on findings from previous research. Furthermore, simulating these models on an independent dataset and other past cases featured in previous research reveals encouraging signals for accurately identifying higher potential for tornadoes. This statistical application using large-sample-size datasets can serve as a first step to streamlining the process of reproducibly quantifying tornado threats by service-providing organizations in a diagnostic manner, encouraging consistency in messaging scientifically sound information for the protection of life and property.

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Alexandra K. Anderson-Frey, Yvette P. Richardson, Andrew R. Dean, Richard L. Thompson, and Bryan T. Smith

Abstract

The southeastern United States has become a prime area of focus in tornado-related literature due, in part, to the abundance of tornadoes occurring in high-shear low-CAPE (HSLC) environments. Through this analysis of 4133 tornado events and 16 429 tornado warnings in the southeastern United States, we find that tornadoes in the Southeast do indeed have, on average, higher shear and lower CAPE than tornadoes elsewhere in the contiguous United States (CONUS). We also examine tornado warning skill in the form of probability of detection (POD; percent of tornadoes receiving warning prior to tornado occurrence) and false alarm ratio (FAR; percent of tornado warnings for which no corresponding tornado is detected), and find that, on average, POD is better and FAR is worse for tornadoes in the Southeast than for the CONUS as a whole. These measures of warning skill remain consistent even when we consider only HSLC tornadoes. The Southeast also has nearly double the CONUS percentage of deadly tornadoes, with the highest percentage of these deadly tornadoes occurring during the spring, the winter, and around local sunset. On average, however, the tornadoes with the lowest POD also tend to be those that are weakest and least likely to be deadly; for the most part, the most dangerous storms are indeed being successfully warned.

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Burkely T. Gallo, Adam J. Clark, Bryan T. Smith, Richard L. Thompson, Israel Jirak, and Scott R. Dembek

Abstract

Probabilistic ensemble-derived tornado forecasts generated from convection-allowing models often use hourly maximum updraft helicity (UH) alone or in combination with environmental parameters as a proxy for right-moving (RM) supercells. However, when UH occurrence is a condition for tornado probability generation, false alarm areas can occur from UH swaths associated with nocturnal mesoscale convective systems, which climatologically produce fewer tornadoes than RM supercells. This study incorporates UH timing information with the forecast near-storm significant tornado parameter (STP) to calibrate the forecast tornado probability. To generate the probabilistic forecasts, three sets of observed climatological tornado frequencies given an RM supercell and STP value are incorporated with the model output, two of which use UH timing information. One method uses the observed climatological tornado frequency for a given 3-h window to generate the probabilities. Another normalizes the observed climatological tornado frequency by the number of hail, wind, and tornado reports observed in that 3-h window compared to the maximum number of reports in any 3-h window. The final method is independent of when UH occurs and uses the observed climatological tornado frequency encompassing all hours. The normalized probabilities reduce the false alarm area compared to the other methods but have a smaller area under the ROC curve and require a much higher percentile of the STP distribution to be used in probability generation to become reliable. Case studies demonstrate that the normalized probabilities highlight the most likely area for evening RM supercellular tornadoes, decreasing the nocturnal false alarm by assuming a linear convective mode.

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Burkely T. Gallo, Adam J. Clark, Bryan T. Smith, Richard L. Thompson, Israel Jirak, and Scott R. Dembek

Abstract

Attempts at probabilistic tornado forecasting using convection-allowing models (CAMs) have thus far used CAM attribute [e.g., hourly maximum 2–5-km updraft helicity (UH)] thresholds, treating them as binary events—either a grid point exceeds a given threshold or it does not. This study approaches these attributes probabilistically, using empirical observations of storm environment attributes and the subsequent climatological tornado occurrence frequency to assign a probability that a point will be within 40 km of a tornado, given the model-derived storm environment attributes. Combining empirical frequencies and forecast attributes produces better forecasts than solely using mid- or low-level UH, even if the UH is filtered using environmental parameter thresholds. Empirical tornado frequencies were derived using severe right-moving supercellular storms associated with a local storm report (LSR) of a tornado, severe wind, or severe hail for a given significant tornado parameter (STP) value from Storm Prediction Center (SPC) mesoanalysis grids in 2014–15. The NSSL–WRF ensemble produced the forecast STP values and simulated right-moving supercells, which were identified using a UH exceedance threshold. Model-derived probabilities are verified using tornado segment data from just right-moving supercells and from all tornadoes, as are the SPC-issued 0600 UTC tornado probabilities from the initial day 1 forecast valid 1200–1159 UTC the following day. The STP-based probabilistic forecasts perform comparably to SPC tornado probability forecasts in many skill metrics (e.g., reliability) and thus could be used as first-guess forecasts. Comparison with prior methodologies shows that probabilistic environmental information improves CAM-based tornado forecasts.

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Bryan T. Smith, Richard L. Thompson, Douglas A. Speheger, Andrew R. Dean, Christopher D. Karstens, and Alexandra K. Anderson-Frey

Abstract

The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) has developed a database of damage-surveyed tornadoes in the contiguous United States (2009–17) that relates environmental and radar-derived storm attributes to damage ratings that change during a tornado life cycle. Damage indicators (DIs), and the associated wind speed estimates from tornado damage surveys compiled in the Damage Assessment Toolkit (DAT) dataset, were linked to the nearest manual calculations of 0.5° tilt angle maximum rotational velocity V rot from single-site WSR-88D data. For each radar scan, the maximum wind speed from the highest-rated DI, V rot, and the significant tornado parameter (STP) from the SPC hourly objective mesoscale analysis archive were recorded and analyzed. Results from examining V rot and STP data indicate an increasing conditional probability for higher-rated DIs (i.e., EF-scale wind speed estimate) as both STP and V rot increase. This work suggests that tornadic wind speed exceedance probabilities can be estimated in real time, on a scan-by-scan basis, via V rot and STP for ongoing tornadoes.

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Matthew C. Brown, Christopher J. Nowotarski, Andrew R. Dean, Bryan T. Smith, Richard L. Thompson, and John M. Peters

Abstract

The response of severe local storms to environmental evolution across the early evening transition (EET) remains a forecasting challenge, particularly within the context of the Southeast U.S. storm climatology, which includes the increased presence of low-CAPE environments and tornadic nonsupercell modes. To disentangle these complex environmental interactions, Southeast severe convective reports spanning 2003–18 are temporally binned relative to local sunset. Sounding-derived data corresponding to each report are used to characterize how the near-storm environment evolves across the EET, and whether these changes influence the mode, frequency, and tornadic likelihood of their associated storms. High-shear, high-CAPE (HSHC) environments are contrasted with high-shear, low-CAPE (HSLC) environments to highlight physical processes governing storm maintenance and tornadogenesis in the absence of large instability. Last, statistical analysis is performed to determine which aspects of the near-storm environment most effectively discriminate between tornadic (or significantly tornadic) and nontornadic storms toward constructing new sounding-derived forecast guidance parameters for multiple modal and environmental combinations. Results indicate that HSLC environments evolve differently than HSHC environments, particularly for nonsupercell (e.g., quasi-linear convective system) modes. These low-CAPE environments sustain higher values of low-level shear and storm-relative helicity (SRH) and destabilize postsunset—potentially compensating for minimal buoyancy. Furthermore, the existence of HSLC storm environments presunset increases the likelihood of nonsupercellular tornadoes postsunset. Existing forecast guidance metrics such as the significant tornado parameter (STP) remain the most skillful predictors of HSHC tornadoes. However, HSLC tornado prediction can be improved by considering variables like precipitable water, downdraft CAPE, and effective inflow base.

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Bryan T. Smith, Tomas E. Castellanos, Andrew C. Winters, Corey M. Mead, Andrew R. Dean, and Richard L. Thompson

Abstract

A severe thunderstorm wind gust climatology spanning 2003–09 for the contiguous United States is developed using measured Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) and Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) wind gusts. Archived severe report information from the National Climatic Data Center publication Storm Data and single-site volumetric radar data are used to identify severe wind gust observations [≥50 kt (25.7 m s−1)] associated with thunderstorms and to classify the convective mode of the storms. The measured severe wind gust distribution, comprising only 2% of all severe gusts, is examined with respect to radar-based convective modes. The convective mode scheme presented herein focuses on three primary radar-based storm categories: supercell, quasi-linear convective systems (QLCSs), and disorganized. Measured severe gust frequency revealed distinct spatial patterns, where the high plains received the greatest number of gusts and occurred most often in the late spring and summer months. Severe wind gusts produced by supercells were most frequent over the plains, while those from QLCS gusts were most frequent in the plains and Midwest. Meanwhile, disorganized storms produced most of their severe gusts in the plains and Intermountain West. A reverse spatial distribution signal exists in the location between the maximum measured severe wind gust corridor located over the high plains and the maximum in all severe thunderstorm wind reports from Storm Data, located near and west of the southern Appalachians.

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Bryan T. Smith, Richard L. Thompson, Douglas A. Speheger, Andrew R. Dean, Christopher D. Karstens, and Alexandra K. Anderson-Frey

Abstract

A sample of damage-surveyed tornadoes in the contiguous United States (2009–17), containing specific wind speed estimates from damage indicators (DIs) within the Damage Assessment Toolkit dataset, were linked to radar-observed circulations using the nearest WSR-88D data in Part I of this work. The maximum wind speed associated with the highest-rated DI for each radar scan, corresponding 0.5° tilt angle rotational velocity V rot, significant tornado parameter (STP), and National Weather Service (NWS) convective impact-based warning (IBW) type, are analyzed herein for the sample of cases in Part I and an independent case sample from parts of 2019–20. As V rot and STP both increase, peak DI-estimated wind speeds and IBW warning type also tend to increase. Different combinations of V rot, STP, and population density—related to ranges of peak DI wind speed—exhibited a strong ability to discriminate across the tornado damage intensity spectrum. Furthermore, longer duration of high V rot (i.e., ≥70 kt) in significant tornado environments (i.e., STP ≥ 6) corresponds to increasing chances that DIs will reveal the occurrence of an intense tornado (i.e., EF3+). These findings were corroborated via the independent sample from parts of 2019–20, and can be applied in a real-time operational setting to assist in determining a potential range of wind speeds. This work provides evidence-based support for creating an objective and consistent, real-time framework for assessing and differentiating tornadoes across the tornado intensity spectrum.

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