How I documented and missed twin tornadoes at the same time.
I feel pretty stupid. I guess I got tunnel vision. I've always thought seeing twin tornadoes would be incredible. I never imagined it would happen in the month of December. I especially never imagined I wouldn't realize it until 14 days after seeing them, while writing this blog post.
A Winter setup with dynamics that one would expect to find in Spring, the environment was primed for strong, long track tornadoes across Northern Mississippi into Southern Tennessee. I targeted Clarksdale, Mississippi, just north of Shelby, where a tornadic supercell went on to track 150 miles across Northern Mississippi.
I started the day in Shreveport, Louisiana because the models were showing supercells forming in northeast Texas early in the morning of the 23rd. I figured I could chase NW Louisiana overnight and still make it to Mississippi for the main event that afternoon. The storms didn't get going until near dawn, so I made the decision to head northeast.
SPC issued a Particularly Dangerous Situation tornado watch at 11:55 am CST, with a high risk for tornadoes and a high risk for EF2 or greater tornadoes. I had targeted Clarksdale for the terrain nearly as much as the screaming helicity (approaching 400 m2/s2) and shear (60 kts effective). I knew for certain I didn't want to be west of the Mississippi River with few crossings and warp speed tornadic supercells bearing down on me. I reached Cleveland, Ms and posted the watch to facebook.
Storms had formed and were approaching the area as I left Cleveland, but were struggling to intensify as they moved northeast. One finally started to become dominant, so I made the decision to hold tight in Shelby. The first severe warning came out as the storm approached the small Mississippi town. I observed several funnels and a sizeable wall cloud as the storm raced off to the northeast.
I headed east on highway 32 out of Shelby and turned north on Murphree Rd to get another look at the storm. As I drove north, the supercell produced its first tornado. I hurried to get as close as possible as the tornado passed in front of me. I snapped an image of the very early stages of the tornado in the distance and called in my report. A tornado warning was already issued.
The tornado was rapidly growing and intensifying. As I got closer, I took a few pictures with my cell phone and DSLR, then started rolling video on the tornado. I then posted a photo of the tornado to facebook. The images and video during this time show two large tornadoes occurring simultaneously. Due to my distance from the storm I am unsure if there were two tornadoes at first visual.
At the time, I noticed the 'feature' ahead of the backlit tornado, but decided it was rain and never thought twice about it (even after Savannah said she thought there might be a second tornado in the image). I guess I was so focused on the large tornado closer to me, and the other tornado was so low contrast, that I just missed it. One thing I know with certainty is that at 3:04 pm there were two large tornadoes occurring with this storm.
The video is true to what my eyes were seeing at the time. As you can see it would have been easy to miss the fact that there were two tornadoes occurring.
These tornadoes were moving fast, between 60-80mph! I re-positioned after the previous video was shot and attempted to get closer to the storm one last time. I shot the second video just a couple miles to the north of the location where the first video was shot. In it the large dark tornado from the first video (now white and low contrast) pushes off to the east. It appears a new circulation forms and produces another tornado. If this was a new tornado, that would make three tornadoes from this storm in a span of about 10 minutes.
As I tried to make my way through back roads to the check on the town, I encountered a farm house that sustained damage with minor damage to the home, multiple trees and powerlines down in the driveway and yard, along with a barn that was totally destroyed. There was a car in the driveway, so I stopped to search the property to see if anyone needed help. After 10 minutes of searching and calling out, it became apparent nobody was there and it was time to move to safety as more tornado warned supercells approached the area. I ended the chase and began the all night drive back to Texas.
I learned some really good lessons on this chase. One being you have to keep your head on a swivel beneath tornado producing supercells. Whether it be a satellite, an occlusion event of a cyclic supercell, or a second simultaneously occurring tornado, it is really easy to get in a bad spot and unknowingly be overtaken by a second tornado, especially in low contrast situations or when storms are moving at break neck speed. The second is to always keep your eye on the radar. Even if I questioned that second feature being a tornado or not, a quick look at the velocity scan would have given me a much better idea of what I was seeing at the time.
While I'm a little disappointed in myself for not noticing at the time, I am glad I was able to document twin tornadoes, in December nonetheless. I suppose figuring it out late is better than never. Besides how many images are out there with a large, dark tornado next to a large, light tornado?
Sadly 11 people lost their lives from tornadoes caused by this storm. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.