Field Notes: From Oklahoma

Author(s): Michael Baldwin
Photographs by: Provided

Oklahoma summer skies

Oklahoma summer skies.

Whenever I talk about weather forecasts, I like to paraphrase the late statistician George E.P. Box: “All forecasts are wrong, but some forecasts are useful.”

My motivation for going out in the field this spring to launch weather balloons near thunderstorms was to find ways to get more of our forecasts into the “useful” category, especially those related to hazardous weather conditions.

I joined the Purdue team led by Prof. Jeff Trapp and graduate students Logan Dawson and Joe Woznicki just after Memorial Day, near the middle of our data collection period for the Mesoscale Predictability Experiment (MPEX).

It took a couple of very hectic days in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas for me to “learn the system” of collecting data from our mobile sounding equipment as well as coordinating with the other teams from Colorado State University, Texas A&M and the National Severe Storms Laboratory to maneuver everyone toward the best position possible in order to safely launch balloons within a few 10s of kilometers of potentially dangerous thunderstorms. For the most part, this was exhausting work with many long hours of driving interspersed with a frenzy of balloon launches, checking the latest radar data, frustrating attempts at communication in areas with little to no cell coverage, followed by quick decisions of where to go next to safely prepare the next balloon launch.

We collected data on several days with very interesting weather events and expect to learn a great deal from those data. One event in particular, the El Reno, Okla., tornado of May 31, showed us that we have so much more to learn, not just about how the atmosphere works, but also how best to communicate forecasts of weather hazards as well as about how people respond to those forecasts. Our team was positioned just to the south of this storm, too far away for us to see the actual tornado, but close enough to see firsthand some of the traffic congestion associated with people either trying to flee the storm, or view it with their own eyes.

Oklahoma double rainbow

Oklahoma double rainbow.

Eight people were killed by this tornado (all of them in vehicles) including three respected “professional storm chasers” –– Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young.

There were many unusual aspects to this storm, including multiple circulations that may have contributed to the “left turn” that caught many of these storm chasers off guard, leaving them in the direct path of the violent — and super rare — EF5 tornado.

As the storm moved closer to the Oklahoma City metro area, thousands of people attempted to flee its path, possibly due to their fresh memories of the devastation caused by the tornado in Moore, Okla., just 11 days earlier. As a result, major interstate highways were turned into virtual parking lots due to the congestion. Luckily, the storm weakened before it passed through the congested areas, otherwise the death toll probably would have been much higher.

OK balloon launch

Balloon launch 2

Launcing weather balloons around severe storms in Oklahoma.