Tornado Analysis for Wednesday

…Most significant threat for tornadoes in Alabama since 2020…

Warm air has been in place over Alabama for days, with beautiful sunshine and temperatures reaching 80. But it is mid-March, and these temperatures are 15 degrees above normal. Remember, 28 years ago this weekend, we had a Blizzard! Winter is not over, but with longer days and more direct sunlight over the southern U.S., the contrasts that produce severe weather are building.

With a weak upper low far to our north on Monday…we experienced isolated, but some intense, thunderstorms over Alabama. Several of these rotated, and one produced at least a wall cloud and funnel cloud just north and west of BHM, and possibly a brief tornado west of Adamsville. See radar info and pictures below. Another produced hail in the Gadsden area Monday evening.

Radar and photography of possible tornado around 2:45 pm today.

With warm, humid air in place over Alabama, we could see scattered showers and thunderstorms just about anytime today also, but most of those should not be severe.

A stronger upper-level trough with a cutoff low in the center is currently spinning near Las Vegas, NV, with a 125 mph jet at 17,000 feet to its south. The dry air being pulled in by the jet is clear on water vapor channel satellite imagery this morning. That big upper trough will cross the Rockies today and become negatively tilted over KS/OK/TX by Wednesday.

Satellite water vapor (now, top), 500 mb chart (now, middle), 500 mb chart (Wed evening, bottom)

Due to the upper-level divergence ahead of this large upper-level system, a surface low pressure area will form to the Lee of the Rockies late today, and reach Missouri by Wednesday afternoon. The air mass over the Southeast U.S. is already warm and humid in many areas (65 degrees before sunrise here in BHM) But, the deep, strong southerly flow out ahead of this surface low will bring even warmer, more humid air north from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The air in BHM on Wednesday afternoon, for example, will come from the area just west of Cuba. This will allow for dewpoints, the best measure of humidity in the atmosphere, to rise way up into the 60s over most of southern, central, and western Alabama.

NOAA Forecast Trajectories Ending in several cities in the SE US
(pivotalweather.com)

An interesting feature tknown as “cold air damming”, where very cold air in the Northeast US can’t get over the Appalachians and pours south into the Carolinas, Georgia, and eastern Alabama, will likely be present early, maybe as far west as I-65. But, the strong southerly flow will push this cold air out of the way. This may be associated with some cool, overrunning rain during the day Wednesday, delaying the threat for severe weather. However, strong thermal boundaries can serve as focal points for storm rotation later.

So how will this all play out?

Expect some rain over parts of Alabama Wednesday morning, as the main surge of warm, humid air moves in and pushes the cooler air out of the way. By Wednesday afternoon, some areas may see a bit of sunshine, warming temperatures into the 70s. Whether or not the sun comes out Wed afternoon may play a key role in the intensity of nighttime storms (the sun came out the day of the Fultondale EF-3 tornado). Either way, with the upper forcing, temperatures aloft will be cold, allowing for CAPE values of 1,000 to 2,000 J/kg. A few isolated, severe storms may develop across parts of AR/MS/and western AL Thursday afternoon in the unstable air mass with enough wind shear for storm rotation and tornadoes. This threat would mainly be west of I-65. Below is the expected atmospheric temperature and wind profile from Bluff Creek, AL, in Walker County about 25 miles west of BHM. Note the wind shear (winds increasing in speed and changing direction with height at low-levels); this causes helicity (247) that is not extreme, but enough to create storm rotation with instability in place (CAPE 2100 J/kg). This is an aggressive model…some do not have temperatures as warm as this.

(NAM model sounding for Bluff Creek, AL, 25 mi west of BHM, 7 pm Wed

The main event will likely come during the evening hours, after sunset, over north and central Alabama. The strongest forcing from the upper system will move in during the evening. Winds at 850 mb (about 5,000 feet) will increase to 60 mph, and SR helciity values may go above 300 m2/s2. With sunset and cooling, the air won’t be quite as thermodynamically unstable, but CAPE values over 1,000 J/kg are still likely. A combination of CAPE and shear that provides an indicator of tornado probability known as the Energy-Helicity Index (EHI) will still be 2-4, and only 1 is needed for tornadoes. Computer model forecasts for CAPE/SRH/EHI for 10 pm CDT Wednesday are shown below. By this time, a line of intense storms will likely be moving into Alabama ahead of the main cold front, with straight-line winds up to 75 mph, the potential for large hail, and several tornadoes. A few supercell storms may form out ahead of the line…these are often the most dangerous as they can produce strong tornadoes.

(data from pivotalweather.com)

There is still uncertainty with this system, perhaps more than normal due to 1) the closed upper low, 2) the cool Gulf waters due to our very cold February, and 3) the cold air coming in from the east. However, it looks like we will have an outbreak of severe weather, including some tornadoes, on Wednesday and Wednesday night. Even the computer models can’t agree (as shown below), with the American models more aggressive than the European model. But, they all show a risk for tornadoes and severe storms, peaking between 6 pm and 11 pm here in central Alabama.

No, this will not be April 27, 2011. The EHI that day was 11, not 3. But, it could be a dangerous weather day, and you should prepare now. Have multiple ways of getting warnings, including some that will work with no power. NOAA Weather Radio, phone apps like “Tornado” from the Red Cross, and your local TV station works best (I watch JP Dice and Wes Wyatt on Fox 6). Make sure you have batteries for flashlights, and that your phones are fully charged. Think about where you will go if a Tornado Warning is issued for your area. Remember, lowest floor, center of building, away from windows and doors, small room. Helmets, blankets, etc. to protect you from debris. And, even in a basement, get under something sturdy like a heavy pool table or in your car.

Another update tomorrow morning.

You can also follow me on Facebook, Tim Coleman, LinkedIn Tim Coleman, PhD, and Twitter @timbhm

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