Category: Met 101/Weather History

Storm Spotter Xtreme 2016

| April 11, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

Miss the big annual spotter training? Here are the sessions.

Part one features the basic training from Brian Peters… part two is “polygonology” from Kevin Laws of the NWS Birmingham, and part three is James Spann’s talk on lessons learned from April 27, 2011, and the advanced training from Brian Peters. Thanks to the huge crowd for their attendance!

Lady, You’re Too Late…

| April 3, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

Click image to enlarge slightly.

Click image to enlarge slightly.



We all miss our mentor and friend, J.B. Elliott, especially on a day like today, a red letter day in Alabama weather history, when J.B.’s work saved countless lives. Here is an essay I penned about the early morning hours of that fateful day.

The midpoint of his overnight shift at the National Weather Service Forecast Office on West Oxmoor Road in Birmingham had just passed when Met Tech J.B. Elliott left his desk and walked into the teletype room. It was Elliott’s week to do dreaded midnight shifts. He had come on duty at twelve o’clock and would be there until 8 a.m.

Shifts were, and still are, an unavoidable part of working for the National Weather Service. After nearly two decades, he was used to it. He would mark his seventeenth anniversary with the Weather Service in just five days. He had worked at the Birmingham office for his entire career, a rarity in the NWS. Most weather people moved around frequently, especially early in their careers.

When he had started, it had been called the U.S. Weather Bureau and the Birmingham office had been in the terminal building at the Airport. The stately old building looked like it would be more in place on the grounds of a southern Country Club than an airport, with graceful columns adorning the front of the building. There were even rocking chairs on the front porch.

His first day on the job had started off with a bang, and today was going to be active like that day in 1957. J.B. had no formal training in weather, no degree in meteorology. But he had loved since his youngest days growing up in Hale County, in Alabama’s Black Belt south of Tuscaloosa. In fact, he had been born less than a month after the worst tornado outbreak in Alabama history had killed over 300 people. The first tornado of that dreadful day had touched down twenty five miles south of his hometown of Havana Junction. His mom always said that his fascination with the weather stemmed from the fact that heard thunder in the womb on that day, March 21, 1932.

J.B. loved listening to the old timers talk about the weather as they played checkers in the town square at Havana Junction. His father was killed in an industrial accident when he was just nine, and it was just his mom and sister after that. This meant getting up early to milk the cows and other chores.

His mother took a job in Tuscaloosa. One day she brought him a special present. A dime store thermometer. He meticulously recorded weather observations each day. He even got up an hour early so that he could tune into radio stations across the country to jot down their weather reports. He would carefully record these on a map of the United States, producing his own personal weather forecasts.

After graduating from Hale County High School in Akron, J.B. moved to Bessemer, near Birmingham, after getting a job with a wholesale grocery company. But he stayed close to the weather by volunteering as a U.S. Weather Bureau Cooperative Observer. In this role, he supplied daily weather reports of temperature and precipitation.

He frequently made the fifteen mile trip to the Birmingham Airport on Saturdays to hang out with the meteorologists there. He applied for a job as a Meteorological Technician, but there was a rule that if there were any veterans on the Federal Register looking for a job, they had priority over a civilian, a policy that J.B. patriotically supported.

Mr. Charles Bradley, the Chief of the Birmingham Weather Bureau Office kept an eye out for an opportunity to get the young man on his staff. He recognized J.B.’s keen interest in the weather, realizing that what he lacked in formal training, he made up for in enthusiasm and dedication.

Then in late March 1957, Mr. Bradley called J.B.’s mother. He had an opening available that J.B. could fill. There was only one problem. J.B. was driving out west with a cousin to visit National Parks. They were making one last stop in Denver before heading into New Mexico, where they would be out of contact for the next two weeks. The once in a lifetime chance at the job of his dreams would evaporate.

Mrs. Elliott called their relatives. The men had not left yet. J.B. was able to see a government-approved doctor for his physical and the job was his. On his way home, newspaper headlines were dominated by a week of active weather, including a major tornado that had hit the city of Dallas on April 2nd.

After returning to Alabama, he reported for work on April 8, 1957 to fill out paperwork on his first day on the job. But there was no time for that. As soon as he walked in the door at the Weather Office that morning, he was pressed into service. Tornadoes were skipping across North Alabama and one was on the ground in the Red Mills community. Two people would be killed in Morgan County. At least four significant tornado struck North Alabama that day, including two tornadoes that modern research would estimate caused F3 damage. Of course, the F-Scale, which estimates tornado wind speeds from damage indicators was less than a year old in 1974, and it was actually the FPP scale, named for its founders, Theodore Fujita and Allen Pearson.

So, J.B. almost didn’t get paid for his first day answering the phones and helping the other weathermen that day. But he didn’t mind. He had been pitching in during his visits to the office for awhile. He didn’t tell his new boss Mr. Bradley, but he probably would have done the job for free. But now he had a career in weather.

Nearly seventeen years later, J.B. was on the precipice of the career-defining day in that weather career that would last until 1989. He stepped into the cacophony of the teletype room at the NWS office in the modern suburban office building on West Oxmoor Road around 4:15 a.m. that April 3rd. The building technically was in Homewood, a fact not lost on a certain caller to the office that threatened to have J.B.’s job if he didn’t stop answering the phone with the scripted response “National Weather Service Birmingham”.

J.B. and the other staff on duty early that morning had been waiting on the severe weather outlook from SELS. SELS was the Severe Local Storms Unit at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City. Surprisingly, SELS had only been in existence for twenty five years, not much longer than J.B. had been in the Weather Service.

The teletype room at West Oxmoor Road wasn’t much different than the teletype room that was in the weather office at the old Birmingham Airport terminal on J.B.’s first day. It was a small room, three of its walls lined with hulking, black metal teletype terminals that constantly clacked out from all over the country on rolls of yellow paper.

Two of them, the Service A and Service C teletypes, spit out row after row of SAs, or surface aviation observations. The coded reports told meteorologists a story about the weather at hundreds of airport weather stations around the country, including the cloud heights, visibilities, current weather, temperatures, dewpoints, wind direction and speed, barometric pressure and precipitation. They were Greek to the layman, but to a meteorologist, they were chock full of important information.

One machine tied the office directly to SELS, network radar sites and other NWS offices. The RAWARC (Radar Report and Warning Coordination) line was a 100 word per minute circuit that transmitted critical watch and warning data as well as coded radar reports from the powerful network radar stations. Forecasters at SELS sent weather watches and other information over this circuit to the local weather offices.

Watches were issued for a wide geographic area, generally several thousand square miles at a time, usually for four to six hours. Watches delineated the area that SELS forecasters believed would be affected by tornadoes or severe thunderstorms. They had already issued a tornado watch the evening before. At 4 a.m. on April 3rd, they were busy issuing two watches for parts of states from Texas to Kentucky. This really was going to be a potent weather system.

The issuance of the watches delayed their daily severe weather forecast for the country, the Severe Weather Outlook. This product was anxiously awaited by forecasters around the National Weather Service and it was displayed each morning on the Today Show. J.B. typed a quick message into the Request/Reply machine. This teletype circuit was connected to a computer in Kansas City which generated a reply with the requested product. Forecasters used it to ask for products like watched to be retransmitted. The Severe Weather Outlook had still not been issued.

The public forecaster had already sent the State Weather Forecast for Alabama. He had composed the forecast and had given it to J.B. to be composed on the teletype. Hunt and peck, but on steroids, was J.B.’s typing technique and the rapid fire method worked amazingly well. There was no backspace on a teletype machine. As you typed, it punched a thin ½ ribbon of paper tape. The nine pins actually punched little holes in the tape that another teletype machine could read. This allowed messages from one machine to be resent on another machine without retyping them. It was a critical component in the communications process that would be considered antiquated in the computer age.

But still, it took time to compose a message, and the state forecast product was due out by 4:45 a.m. J.B. went back to his desk to compose the message for the forecaster on duty. The forecast didn’t include any mention of severe thunderstorms. He had already composed the message when one of the forecasters walked in with a copy of the Severe Weather Outlook, hot off the wire from Kansas City.

ZCZC
ACU6 KMKC

ALSYM A KKCC
ZCZC
MKC AC 030900
VALID 031200Z-041200Z

SEE WW NRS 90 AND 91…

SCTD SVR TSTMS EXPCTD TODAY AND TONIGHT FM NE TEX ACRS ARK SE MO ILL IND OHIO W VA KY TENN WRN VA WRN NC EXTRM NW S C NRN AND CNTRL ALA NRN AND CENTRL MISS WRN HALF LA AND NW GA.

STG LOW PRESSR AREA EXPCTD INTO NE MO BY 00Z WITH CLD FNT SWD THRI ERN ARK AND LA. STG SLY WNDS WITH COOLING ALF EXPCTD TO GIVE SVR TSTMS… WITH ACTVTY SPRDG EWD DURG PD.

GEN TSTMS TO RT OF LN VCT FTW OKC TOP GRI MSP SAW..CONT… MSS UWM …CONT… SSI CTY.

Translated, the message said this:

SCATTERED SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS EPECTED TODAY AND TONIGHT FROM NORTHEAST TEXAS ACROSS ARKANSAS, SOUTHEAST MISSOURI, ILLINOIS, INDIANA, OHIO, WEST VIRGINIA, KENTUCKY, TENNESSEE, WESTERN VIRGINIA, WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, EXTREME NORTHWEST SOUTH CAROLINA, NORTHERN AND CENTRAL ALABAMA, NORTHERN AND CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI, NORTHERN HALF LOUISIANA AND NORTHWEST GEORGIA.

STRONG LOW PRESSURE AREA EXPECTED INTO NORTHEAST MISSOURI BY 0000Z WITH COLD FRONT SOUTHWARD THROUGH EASTERN ARKANSAS AND LOUISIANA. STRONG SOUTHERLY WINDS WITH COOLING ALOFT EXPECTED TO GIVE SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS…WITH ACTIVITY SPREADING EASTWARD DURING THE PERIOD.

It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, convective outlook they had ever seen. This confirmed what the forecasters at the National Weather Service in Birmingham already thought. It was going to be a really bad day. First, there was work to be done. J.B. set down at his tape punch and hammered out the zone forecasts. The forecasts for the northern and western sections of Alabama mentioned the possibility of locally severe thunderstorms by evening.

Then J.B. started working on his favorite product, the Alabama Weather Summary, a narrative that allowed him a little creative license. He had even been selected to attend a special writing training course in Kansas City. He penned the following message:

ALABAMA READY FOR ANOTHER BOUT WITH THUNDERSTORMS…

THUNDERSTORMS WILL OVERSPREAD ALABAMA FROM THE WEST THIS AFTERNOON AND TONIGHT AND SOME OF THEM COULD BECOME SEVERE. THE SITUATION WILL BE WATCHED CLOSELY TODAY AS THUNDERSTORMS ENTER NORTHWEST ALABAMA THIS AFTERNOON AND SPREAD EAST AND SOUTHEAST OVER THE STATE THIS AFTERNOON AND TONIGHT. THEY WILL BE LOCALLY HEAVY OVER MOST OF THE STATE WITH THE HEAVIEST ONES LIKELY OVER THE NORTH AND CENTRAL COUNTIES.

THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS ARE BLAMED ON THE STRONGEST STORM SYSTEM OF THE SPRING SO FAR. THE DEEP LOW IS CENTERED OVER KANSAS THIS MORNING MOVING NORTHEAST.

J.B. also served as the unofficial weather historian for the state of Alabama, with an uncanny ability to recall dates on significant events. He frequently wrote special statements that recalled historic events, and that morning was no different. He transmitted a special release stating that April 3rd was the anniversary of killer tornadoes, which hit Saugatuck, Michigan and Wichita Falls, Texas in 1964.

A couple of hours later, J.B. took the elevator from the fourth floor and headed into the parking lot. He made the twenty minute drive to his home in the Huffman neighborhood of northeastern Birmingham. He stopped at the Food World grocery store near his house and went in for a few items. The cashier made small talk about the weather. “They say it’s going to get bad today,” she said. J.B. agreed, not elaborating, ready to get home to grab a few winks since he would most likely get called in early before his shift that started at midnight again. “Have a great day, “ she called as he headed back out into the unseasonable heat and humidity. “Lady, you’re too late,” he thought to himself. It was going to be a terrible day.

By the morning of April 4th, the tornado count would be in the hundreds and the death toll would as well. The 147 tornadoes that occurred in twenty-hour hours was a record. A total of 310 Americans would be killed that fateful afternoon and evening. The record was one that many never thought would be broken. For many it was in the unbreakable category with records like Cal Ripken’s 2,632 games played streak.

But on the afternoon of April 27, 2011, an amazing 198 tornadoes occurred and 313 people died across the nation. two hundred and fifty two died in Alabama. The events were similar in some ways. In fact, by 4 p.m., J.B. would realize that the event was looking a lot like 1974 all over again as he did continuous severe weather coverage on several Birmingham radio stations, providing a reassuring voice in the storm.

By the next morning, he would know that the event was way worse than the Superoutbreak, and like the unthinkable March 21, 1932 outbreak that claimed over three hundred lives in Alabama alone as ten violent tornadoes ripped across the state in two waves.

We’ve definitely come a long way in the warning process, built on the shoulders of men like J.B. Elliott. But April 27th and May 22nd in Joplin back in 2011 reminded us that we’re not there yet.

On This Date In 1994

| March 27, 2016 @ 6:51 am

On Palm Sunday, March 27, 1994, an EF-4 tornado struck the Goshen United Methodist Church, north of Piedmont, killing 20 people during the morning worship service; 92 were injured. A warning was issued 12 minutes before the tornado destroyed the church building, but unfortunately they never heard the warning.

3-26-2010-8-47-00-PM

The deaths at the church brought to light the deficiencies in the NOAA Weather Radio network across the United States at the time, and the lack of NOAA Weather Radio use in many public spaces. We have come a long way since then, but we have much work to do. Every home, business, church, and public place must have a way of hearing warnings.

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Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and native of Jacksonville, wrote this remarkable account of the storm in the New York Times a few days later.

I was honored to deliver the first sermon from the pulpit of the new building when it open a couple of years later. This was, and still is a special church. Below is a 30 minute special (in three parts) we produced in 2004.

Twenty Three Years Ago Today

| March 12, 2016 @ 9:35 am

Below is a post the late, great J.B. Elliott put on the blog in 2007, which really sums up the Blizzard of 1993, which started on March 12. My TV colleagues at the time were Dan Satterfield and Kevin Selle (who used the name Kevin Collins at the time).

BLIZZARD-OF-1993-GOES7-COLORIR-19930313-0601

As early as March 8, 1993, some long-range weather models were hinting at a humongous winter storm event for the East Coast of the USA. It proved to be amazingly accurate.

Along the Texas Gulf Coast early on the morning of March 12, 1993, a low pressure area was beginning to deepen rapidly. It was already gathering an unbelievable amount of moisture from our old friend, the Gulf of Mexico.

PS: Here I go again. I often wonder what the big 1993 storm would have been like if we did not have our old friend, the Gulf of Meciso.

Back to the story…by Friday evening, oil rigs off the Louisiana coast were reporting wind gusts to hurricane force. The storm had already become a monster. It eventually brought the first widespread blizzard in history to parts of the Southern USA.

Dr. John Knox, a Birmingham native and now a research scientist at the University of Georgia (he received his doctor’s degree in atmospheric science at the University of Wisconsin). He co-authored an excellent college-level instructor’s meteorology book with the title of “Meteorology, Understanding the Atmosphere.” Naturally, being from Birmingham, he wrote about the Blizzard of ’93. He told how the atmosphere became so unstable that thunderstorms developed in the cold air, which helped the storm to dump several inches of snow each hour on Birmingham. There was a lot of eerie green lightning followed by the muffled sound of thunder. With the atmosphere overloaded with big snowflakes, part of the sound of thunder was absorbed. John mentioned that a radio tower on Red Mountain was struck 12 times by that eerie lightning. He also wrote about 50 University of Wisconsin students en route to Panama City getting stranded in Birmingham, when their bus skidded off a road.

TRACKING THE LOW PRESSURE AREA
1. Centered over the NW Gulf of Mexico early on March 12, 1,000 millibars.
2. Over the North-Central Gulf, 6:00 p.m., Friday, March 12, 984 MB
3. Near Savannah at daybreak on Saturday, March 13, 971 MB
4. Near the eastern shore of Maryland, 6:00 p.m. Saturday, 960 MB
5. Near Portland, Maine, 6:00 a.m., Sunday, 964 MB

As Bill Murray pointed out, this made it as strong as a Category 3 hurricane considering the pressure. From the Northern Gulf, the low moved on shore near Cedar Key in the Big Bend area of NW Florida. Winds on land gusted over 110 miles mph with a great deal of damage. There were a number of tornadoes and a number of fatalities.

In our earlier post, we mentioned some of the Eastern USA snow amounts. We repeat just a few.

20 inches in Chattanooga
4 inches in Atlanta (snow covered the north half of Georgia)
50 inches on Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina
18 inches at Asheville
40 inches at High Knob, Virginia
28 inches at Lake of the Woods, Virginia
30 inches at Frostburg, Maryland
36 inches at Latrobe, Pennsylvania with 6 to 10 foot drifts
40 inches at Halcott Center, New York

Dover, Delaware had the honor of reporting the lowest pressure in this giant storm–28.41 inches at 8:00 p.m. on March 13.

ALABAMA SNOW AMOUNTS
It was one of those very rare times, when all 67 counties in Alabama had a snow cover. Here is a selection:

20 inches at Walnut Grove
17 inches at Valley Head
16 inches in Oneonta and Bessemer
13 inches at Anniston, Talladega, Pinson, Birmingham
12 inches at Thomasville, Childersburg, Scottsboro
11 inches at Sylacauga
10 inches at Cullman, Clanton and Heflin
9 inches in Thorsby
8 inches in Ashland, Centreville, Moulton and Guntersville
7 inches in Alexander City, Huntsville and Whatley
6 inches in Camden, Evergreen, Jasper, Livingston, Andalusia, Haleyville and Highland Home
5 inches in Auburn, Winfield, Muscle Shoals and Chatom
4 inches in Montgomery, Union Springs, Vernon, Tuscaloosa, Demopolis, Frisco City, Greenville, Troy
3 inches at Brewton, Hamilton, Bay Minette, Mobile Airport
2 inches at Atmore and Robertsdale
Trace at Fairhope and Coden

Remember, this does not count drifts. Those drifts were humongous in some areas, especially by Alabama standards. The drifts were 5 to 6 feet deep in parts of the Birmingham metro area. The official Birmingham snowfall of 13 inches was recorded at the airport. Naturally there was more in the higher terrain. For example, there was 17 inches where I lived at the time in the Huffman area not far from Medical Center East. Soon after the storm, the National Weather Service received a report of 15-foot drifts in some of the higher terrain of NE Alabama.

This was not a record event for everybody. For example, Auburn’s 5 inches pales when you compare it with their biggest snow around Valentine’s Day in the 1970s when they were buried under 14 inches.

The Mother of All Cold Waves

| February 13, 2016 @ 9:15 am

On February 13, 1899, one of the coldest airmasses ever observed in the U.S. made it all the way to the Gulf Coast. It was 7F in New Orleans and Pensacola. Mobile dropped to a numbing -1F.

The reading of -2F at Tallahassee still is the state’s coldest reading ever. Many all time state record lows were observed during the cold wave.

2016-02-12_22-56-49

In Birmingham, observations were taken at the old Fountain Heights weather office. According to J.B,, records were kept in a beat up old journal. The official low on this frigid morning was -10F at the weather office. Handwritten notes on the journal for the date indicated that the temperature in outlying areas around the city was -14F.

If the reading had been taken at the current observation post at the airport, it would have surely been –14F. If readings had been kept in Pinson then, (normally coldest in Birmingham area) it is safe to bet that the reading there would have been –17F!

2016-02-12_22-57-15

Other Alabama lows that cold morning: -7F in Tuscaloosa, Elba and Opelika; -5F in Greensboro; -11 in Florence; -12 in Decatur; -15 in Oneonta; -16 in Hamilton and Scottsboro and –18 in Valley Head.

Greensboro had five inches of snow on the ground.

A major blizzard was spreading a wide swath of snow from Florida to Maine. Snow flurries were reported in Fort Myers, Florida. The blizzard, dubbed the “Storm King,” dumped nearly 16 inches of snow on New York City on top of an 11 inch snowcover. Twenty inches of snow fell at Washington DC and thirty four inches fell at Cape May, NJ.

The pressure in the center of the storm was estimated at 966 Mb (28.53 inches), as strong as a major hurricane.

More cold records that fell during the coldwave included these all time records: -8 DAL, -16 AMA, -23 Tulia for the coldest ever in Texas, -13 at LIT, -22F at KC and -15 at Washington DC.

OBX Snow!

| February 12, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

2016-02-12_17-36-32

Snow affected the northern portions of the Outer Banks on Friday, making the tan colored sands of the North Carolina coast look more like the dazzlingly sugar white sands of Northwest Florida and Alabama.

Some snowfall amounts from eastern North Carolina included:

…3 inches at Nags Head
…3.5 inches at Kill Devil Hills
…1 inch at Duck

Winter storm warnings were in effect for the Outer Banks, something you don’t see every day!

The precipitation started out as light snow at Hatteras, but it quickly changed over to rain with temperatures in the middle 30s.

Historically, Cape Hatteras has seen several big snows, including a couple of 7 inch storms and their all time record, 11 inches, which occurred on December 30th in 1917.

Record Warmth At Christmas?

| December 20, 2015 @ 10:21 am

Did some digging through the books this morning… here are the top ten warmest Christmas Days since 1900 at Birmingham…

DECEMBER 25 RECORDED HIGHS AT BIRMINGHAM
74 1987
73 1982, 1942
72 1964
71 1926, 1922
70 1901
69 1971
68 1974, 1904

As you can see, we have exceeded 70 degrees on Christmas Day six times… 1987, 1982, 1942, 1964, 1926, and 1922.

Can we beat the record high of 74 set in 1987? Ensemble data is showing a high of 69 for Birmingham Friday, but we all know that can change.

KBHM_2015122006_min_max_16

We will also need to monitor for strong storms Wednesday as severe weather parameters are ramping up a bit, but there is a good bit of uncertainty in this potential.

stpse

Scroll down for Brian’s discussion…

Our El Nino Winter

| December 19, 2015 @ 10:27 am

I get so many questions about this winter with people seeing all kind of wild reports on TV and the Internet. Let’s separate facts from fiction…

*There is LITTLE skill in a seasonal outlook. So, quite frankly, nobody can really tell you what the winter will be like right now. These are just my thoughts and observations after going operational meteorology in Alabama for 37 years.

*There is a strong El Nino ENSO phase underway.

anomnight_current

*Looking at the past can give you a peek into the future, but we have to be careful with using analogs.

*Most previous El Nino years have been wet across the Deep South with few exceptions.

analogs

An enhanced southern branch of the jet stream tends to push frequent storm systems through during the winter season.

The same pattern that sets up the active storm track, also tends to keep true Arctic air from advancing this far south very often. It can happen, but El Nino winters here tend to be generally mild.

*When cold air does arrive, it is usually shallow. And, with the active southern storm track that could very well open up the door for more ice threats than snow threats this season. Ice storms are caused by extended periods of freezing rain (liquid precipitation falling with temperatures are below 32 at the surface). Our last significant ice storm was in 1996, and the last catastrophic ice storm was in 1982, so we are somewhat overdue for one. And, trust me, they are no fun.

*Having warm weather at Christmas in Alabama is NOT unusual. Most don’t like it, but this isn’t anything new. People in Alabama were outside in their shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Eve, 1964 when the temperature soared to 77 degrees. Our warmest Christmas Day on record came in 1987, when the high in Birmingham was 74 degrees.

Birmingham soared to 76 on December 16, 1924.

FYI… the warmest December temperature on record is 80, recorded on December 7, 1951.

In Alabama, it never “gets cold and stays cold”. If you are looking for that kind of winter, head north.

*I have heard in recent weeks “I can never remember the weather being this strange”. I will never forget speaking to a civic club for the first time in my career about weather in 1979, and and older gentlemen said those very words to me after my talk. The truth is that our weather is “strange” EVERY year. There is no such thing as “normal” weather. The chaotic state of the atmosphere guarantees that. But, we do have averages based on 100 years or so of weather records, giving us “average” highs and lows.

*I do have some concern for the spring of 2016; the 1997-1998 El Nino brought an active tornado season; many remember the April 8, 1998 EF-5 tornado in Birmingham that killed 32 people.

BOTTOM LINE: I know there are many cold weather fans that want snow. But, again, this is Alabama. It doesn’t snow much here… never has, and never will. We are coming off a number of cold winters with very significant winter weather events, and it won’t be like that always. Expect a relatively mild winter with frequent rain producers. Yes, occasional cold shots. And, watch for winter storms that could bring more ice than snow. But, NOBODY knows for sure. We will just have to wait and see.

Fifteen Years Ago Today

| December 16, 2015 @ 6:43 am

On December 16, 2000… an EF4 tornado tore through the southern part of Tuscaloosa, killing eleven people and injuring over 100. Nine of the fatalities occurred in mobile homes, one in a vehicle, and one in a commercial building converted to residential use. Six of those killed were females and five were males. Ages ranged from 16 months to 83 years old. The tornado was on the ground for a total of 18 miles, all within Tuscaloosa county. The tornado path was estimated to be 750 yards wide at it’s maximum intensity.

There was an excellent warning for the tornado; a warning was issued at 12:40 p.m. on that deadly Saturday, 14 minutes before the twister first touched down in a rural area southwest of Tuscaloosa near the Black Warrior River. The tornado crossed Alabama 69 near Shelton State Community College and Hillcrest High School; destroying a shopping center and many homes. The Bear Creek Trailer Park was hit, where many of the deaths occurred. The tornado moved to the east/northeast, south of Skyland Boulevard, and finally crossed I-59/20 near the Cottondale exit.

We caught the tornado live on our tower camera in Tuscaloosa; we were able to show live video of the twister on ABC 33/40 for almost 10 minutes as it rolled through the southern part of the city of Tuscaloosa. Our StormChaser van was heavily damaged in the storm; John Oldshue and his photographer had to rush in to a Hampton Inn to protect themselves as the tornado passed right over their location. The manager of the motel has all of the guests lined up in a hallway on the lowest floor, and nobody was injured there.

Later in the day, the same parent storm dropped an EF3 tornado which stuck the Coats Bend region of Etowah County, near Gadsden, destroying 250 homes and injuring 14 people. Like the Tuscaloosa tornado, excellent warnings were issued by the National Weather Service long before the damage occurred. Just another reminder we can have some very violent weather this time of the year. This is the core of the late fall tornado season.

See our live coverage of the tornado below… note we had a skeleton staff that day, and the person running the old tower cam over in the newsroom was multi tasking, and doing the best he could to keep up with everything. The problems on this day led to our new SKYCAM system, which we fully control in the weather office.

And, the front page picture (photo from Michael E. Palmer) from the Tuscaloosa News on December 17, 2000 was so touching. Michael Harris carries an unconscious Whitney Crowder, 6, through debris in Bear Creek Trailer Park after a tornado on Dec. 16, 2000. Whitney’s father and 15-month-old brother were killed in the tornado. Whitney graduated from Tuscaloosa County High School in May 2012; read more about her story here.

Alabama Weather At Christmas

| December 8, 2015 @ 7:32 am

There are some that believe it has always been cold, and should be cold at Christmas in Alabama, and something is wrong this year since we are projecting temperatures, generally speaking, above average through the rest of the month.

Let me say up front, there is no such thing as “normal” weather. The chaotic state of the atmosphere guarantees that. But, we do have averages based on 100 years or so of weather records.

For Birmingham on December 25, the average high is 54, and the average low is 34. But you rarely will find a Christmas with those numbers.

WARMTH: On the warm side, people in Alabama were outside in their shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Eve, 1964 when the temperature soared to 77 degrees. Our warmest Christmas Day on record came in 1987, when the high in Birmingham was 74 degrees.

FYI… the warmest December temperature on record is 80, recorded on December 7, 1951.

No, having mild weather at Christmas is not unusual at this low latitude. In Alabama, it never “gets cold and stays cold”. If you are looking for that kind of winter, head north.

ARCTIC CHILL: But, from time to time, we can have Arctic blasts in late December. The coldest Christmas morning on record came in 1983, when the low in Birmingham was 2 degrees above zero. In 1989, on December 23, the temperature dropped to 1 degree.

WHITE CHRISTMAS? Getting a white Christmas in Alabama is next to impossible, but we did actually have snow five years ago, on December 25, 2010…

ChristmasSnowfall_2010

For many North Alabama communities, it was their first “white Christmas” on record, and some of those records go back over 100 years. The wet, warmer ground conditions in the City of Birmingham and points southward along the Interstate 65 corridor contributed to most of the snow melting as it made contact with the ground. Only a trace of snow was recorded at the Birmingham International Airport with no snow to measure on the snowboard. The City of Birmingham has therefore still never recorded a White Christmas since records have been kept, which is right at 100 years.

BOTTOM LINE: The weather at Christmas in Alabama is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you are going to get. But, this year, with the strong El Nino pattern in place, sure seems like the best chance of cold and snow will be out west, in the Rocky Mountain states. We will see…

AlabamaWXTra: The November 1950 Cold Wave

| November 23, 2015 @ 9:00 am
Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge.

Alabamians paid little attention to the weather forecast on Thanksgiving morning, November 23, 1950. The Birmingham News carried a lead article about the many blessings of the day, including bountiful food, talking about the day’s candied yams, crisp white celery, plump olives and a golden brown roasted turkey. Headlines told of a Thanksgiving Eve crash between two Long Island Railroad trains in New York City that killed 76 people. There were hopes that the Korean War might be ending, bolstered by hints that China might be willing to sit down for peace talks.

Over 36,000 people made their way to Legion Field for the annual Crippled Children’s Classic at Legion Field. The game featured the Phillips Red Raiders and Woodlawn Colonels. It would raise $95,000 for the new Crippled Children’s Hospital. As the game kicked off at 2 p.m., the temperature at the Birmingham Airport was a balmy 70 degrees.

The fine holiday weather belied the fact that a major cold wave was overspreading the U.S. east of the Rockies. Birmingham’s official weatherman, Charles Bradley, warned that the mild afternoon and nice weather was going to be followed by a quick turn to winter. The afternoon highs near 70 would be replaced with overnight lows in the 30s. Highs the following day would remain steady or fall. Fans in shirt sleeves at Legion Field got a rude awakening when the temperature fell into the 50s by the fourth quarter of a 20-0 Phillips victory.

By late evening, readings were in the lower 40s with a north wind averaging over 20 mph. To the north, it was getting interesting. It was 18F in Nashville with heavy snow. It was 25F in Memphis with moderate snow and a north wind averaging over 30 mph. The snow was reaching Northwest Alabama.

By 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, it was down to 32F at Birmingham with snow. Four inches of snow was on the ground at Tuscumbia. An inch was on the ground in the Magic City. Roads were hazardous all over North Alabama. Dozens of accidents were being reported. By late morning, US-31 was impassable as far south as Clanton. By 10:30 a.m., the mercury had plummeted further, to 21F at the Birmingham Airport.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team boarded a charter plane at the Birmingham Airport, bound for Jacksonville and a Saturday tilt with Florida. With two losses, Alabama needed a victory to seal a major bowl bid. Tennessee was already paired with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Kentucky coach Paul Bryant was preparing his Wildcats for a Sugar Bowl date with Oklahoma in New Orleans. The Birmingham News carried rumors that the Bear might be nosing around for a job in Texas, while mentioning that Alabama was his alma mater.

In his afternoon forecast, the weatherman was calling for an overnight low between 12-15F. Good thing for Mr. Bradley that the three degree guarantee had not been invented, because with screaming cold air advection, the temperature would already be at 15 by midnight, on the way to a low of 5F. It is the coldest November reading ever in Birmingham. The second coldest November reading ever is 13F, underscoring the significance of the record. Fresh snow would fall across the northern half of the state on Saturday as the Great Appalachian Storm spun up over Ohio.

J.B. would call it a cold wave. I call it just another story from the pages of this week in weather history. Follow my weather history tweets on Twitter. I am @wxhistorian at Twitter.com.

Remembering 1969’s Hurricane Camille

| August 17, 2015 @ 7:00 am

THIS IS HISTORICAL INFORMATION ON HURRICANE CAMILLE FROM 1969

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Pete Wentzell was 10 years old. He lived in Biloxi, in a one story ranch home directly across Highway 90 from the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. His memories are of an idyllic childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, until August 17, 1969. He remembers the sugar cane that grew right outside their kitchen window. The beach was taken for granted. Summer meant beat up tennis shoes and cutoff shorts, crabbing in the warm Gulf waters at low tide with a kerosene lantern and a gig for any unsuspecting flounder he might find. He could bicycle anyplace he wanted. He had a secret hiding place in a grove of sugar cane.

Pete remembers waking up at 3 a.m. on Sunday, August 17, 1969. Something was eerily wrong in those early pre-dawn hours. He didn’t know what it was, but it terrified him. He could smell coffee. His dad was in the living room in front of the family’s Curtis Mathes console stereo listening to the radio, plotting latitude and longitude coordinates on a hurricane tracking chart. The windows had been boarded up during while Pete slept.

His father had been a military weather forecaster during World War II in Europe. The newscaster’s tone was serious as he reported that the National Hurricane Center Director Robert Simpson was saying that Camille was going to be an unprecedented storm.

Pete’s father told the youngster that the family was going to evacuate their home. Evacuate! That had never happened before. There had been other hurricanes, like 1965’s Hurricane Betsy.

Pete was told to pack clothes in a suitcase. Clothes for summer, fall, and winter. Being an avid fan of toy cars, Pete chose to use his luggage space for his prized Matchbox City. Of course, he failed inspection later, and the toys were replaced with the clothes. He was not worried. They would be back tomorrow. Everything would be okay.

Pete’s dad was like many grownups along the Mississippi coast early on that Sunday morning, August 17, 1969. They had their tracking charts, some of them magnetic, some paper. This hurricane was not turning northward toward Northwest Florida…it was still moving northwest.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and at the Weather Bureau Hurricane Warning Office in New Orleans were coming to the realization that the northward turn was not materializing. This storm was threatening areas west of the hurricane warning. The 5 a.m. CDT advisory was radically different…

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Of course, Camille was drawing a bead on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A total of 143 people died on the coast, and 27 were never found.