Defending the G.R. NWS

July 9th, 2014 at 3:00 am by under Bill's Blog, Weather

velocity 0 velocity 1 velocity 2 velocity 3    First, I’m sure in hindsight that the G.R. NWS wishes they would have issued the perfect tornado warning well in advance of the Kent Co. tornado Sunday evening and that the sirens had sounded (though I wonder at 10:30 on a Sunday night, when it’s dark and pretty much everyone is inside with the rain and storm outside, that sounding the siren would have prompted (mostly males) to go outside to see what was going on, where they would have been in far more danger than inside their homes).

Second, people have to understand that we’re not going to see every tornado in time to get out the perfect warning (or sometimes any warning).  That’s the reality of the technology that we have.  Not every surgery is successful today…once in a while your car may be recalled…once in a while your cell call gets dropped.   The  level of radar technology is certainly better than it was 40 years ago when I started in this business.  Back then the station had an old RCA-AVQ-10 radar that showed only white reflectivity showing up on a black background.  It was hard to pick up snow (especially fluffy snow) in the winter.  Today’s doppler radars are much better, but far from perfect.

If you look at my past blog entries, I started talking about Sunday night storms on July 2.  I hit the probably of Sunday evening/night storms pretty hard on July 4 and 5 on TV.  Beginning on the Day 3 outlook, the Storm Prediction Center had a Slight Risk Area for S. Wisconsin and N. Illinois and as we approached Sunday, the Risk Area was brought into West Michigan and finally covered pretty much all but the SE corner of Lower Michigan.   People looking at weather updates should have known that we had a good chance of thunderstorms Sunday evening/night and that there was the possibility of a severe storm.  SPC’s discussions mentioned the possibility of an isolated tornado.  SPC didn’t issue a watch here, thinking that severe weather would be too isolated to warrant a watch.  Look at the Severe Weather Reports for Sunday, July 6.  Thunderstorms formed in Iowa and produced several relatively small and short-lived tornadoes (some at the list are duplicate sightings of the same tornado).   As storms developed/moved east into Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, there was only the report of “small branches” down at Harvard, IL., hardly worth a large watch and perhaps not even a county warning, since the wind might very well have been less than 58 mph (warning threshold) to down “small branches”.   The GRR National Weather Service issued a severe t-storm warning for S. Ottawa Co.  That verified with the one tree down on US 31 at Port Sheldon Rd.   However, that’s all that was reported, so the NWS opted not to extend the warning into Kent Co.  That was a very reasonable call.  The four radar images here are base velocity images (click on each image to enlarge).  The first is from 10:18 pm, just a couple minutes before the tornado touched down.  The radar is at the airport in the upper right.  The green color indicates air moving toward the radar and the red color air that is moving away from the radar.  The brighter green color indicates stronger wind.  In that first image, you can see the radar picking up some stronger wind gusts along the Kent/Ottawa Co. border.  However, you don’t see a tornado and based on just that image, you wouldn’t issue a tornado warning….at most you’d go severe t-storm warning.  Considering nothing much was reported in Ottawa Co., it’s a very reasonable decision to let it ride.   Now 4-5 minutes later (10:23 pm) you get the next scan and now you see stronger incoming winds and the red on top of the bright green.  Here the tornado is on the ground and crossing US 131.  This is only one scan, one frame and you’ve at this point had no reports of damage.  Do you pull the trigger at this point, or do you wait for another image?  A severe t-storm (not tornado) warning was issued at 10:30 pm, about the time the tornado ended.   Had it been daylight, someone might have seen the funnel form and alert the National Weather Service (spotters are very important to alerting the public of tornado formation).  This tornado lasted about 10 minutes.  You can see the tornado in the 3rd image on 52nd St., but it was pretty much done in image #4.  By the time damage reports came in, the tornado had dissipated around 28th at Breton.  So, even if a tornado warning was initiated when the tornado first touched down, it would be difficult to warn people in the path of the storm before it was already on top of them.

Michigan gets an average of 16 tornadoes per year and most of them are small and short-lived.  The last F4 tornado in Michigan was in 1977.   The last EF1 in Kent County was in 2001, over 13 years ago.  Tornadoes are rare here.  Most are relatively small and short-lived.  Sunday night we had general showers and storms over much of the area.  The National Weather Service has a lot of territory to watch and they had a lot of storms to track at the same time.  This isn’t the Plains States where you might have a classic supercell and you can watch the rotation develop before the tornado touches down.  Tornado forecasting is much better than 50 years ago and you can see that in the lower death tolls today compared to the past.  People are warned more often before tornadoes and with better lead time than in the past.  Most people know what to do in a tornado situation.  However, these small, brief, isolated spin-ups are extremely difficult to forecast before they are on the ground.  We had people on TV saying they ran for the basement.  They did the right thing and we had no fatalities.  You can’t just throw tornado warnings out for every thunderstorm.  People would start ignoring them if the false-alarm rate is too high.  The Storm Prediction Center has an excellent and much improved record, with a very high percentage of tornadoes (especially strong tornadoes EF2 and above) in Tornado Watch boxes.  The National Weather Service in general is much better than it used to be.   Our local NWS in Grand Rapids is staffed by excellent meteorologists.  You’ll be convinced of that if you follow their forecast discussions.  I’m sure they will study this storm, study each radar image to see if there was some clue that might have indicated that a tornado was developing.  But maybe there wasn’t.   The radar image on the left is approximately 2 minutes before the first touchdown.   There’s certainly nothing there that would confirm a tornado.  There will be new improvements made in the future, but you have to realize that the present level of technology is such that there will on rare occasion be that unexpected tornado or that surprise snowfall.

37 Responses to “Defending the G.R. NWS”

  1. I agree Bill. I remember the radar back in the 80′s. We’ve come a long way, hopefully they can keep furthering radar and computer model technology.

  2. Russ Hansen says:

    Well said Bill and thank you.

  3. Nathan (Forest Hills) says:

    Yup I agree, people should take severe thunderstorm warnings as serous as tornado warnings just to be safe.

  4. Nathan (Forest Hills) says:

    Btw, back in June 2008 there was a huge storm with lots of tree damage. I remember looking out the window and it was the biggest storm I had ever seen. All of the neighbors said the wind looked like it was spinning. Yet the NWS did not think it was a tornado. I remember watching you on Tv and you said a strong wall cloud was headed our way (good job on the advanced warning) and we sure got it. But I’ll always wonder if it really was a tornado.

  5. Mike says:

    Very well thought out and described Bill and I couldn’t agree more. I or one have thought the NWS and SPC have done an excellent job with the winter and spring storms this past year. The general public has to realize that t is their responsibility to be alert. I for one have had many people say that the NWS cries wolf way to often….I disagree as all it takes is to have 1 small event lke this happen to you, and your opinion will change.

  6. Mike(Shepherd, Mi) says:

    The meteorologists are not the problem its the technology. If we had rapid scan radars that scanned every minute or less we could see these short lived tornadoes on 3 or 4 radar scans. where now you would get one image if the radar caught it at all.

  7. Jordan (Twin Lake) says:

    Well said, Bill.

  8. Daniel G says:

    Very well said Mr. Steffen. Good job. Reading the comments on the TV8 News site we have one guy itching to sue the government for damage and others complaining about no warning (after its been explained 20 plus times) others complaining about tax money being spent, etc, etc ,etc. Its sad. I doubt very very much that any of them are coming over here to read any of this or have they EVER come close to reading a SPC forecast or a NWS forecast discussion.
    Ah, thats the way of the world these days.
    Pay attention.
    Stay safe.
    Leave the complainers to themselves. I’ve given up.
    Dan on Myers Lake.

    1. Trevor says:

      Here is the statement that should have been issued by the NWS after missing the severe weather outbreak:

      “We apologize for missing the recent Tornado and not alerting the public. We should not be expected to always track, always alert and we certainly should not be the public’s safeguard or only warning for severe weather. We missed it and we apologize.”

      Instead Daniel G. you carry the water for these unaccountable, publicly employed professionals. You and Bill have provided ample excuses for the reasons it was missed. However, weather outlets across the board sensationalize weather forecasting accuracy. This breads a high level of public complacency in an unreliable organization. Confusion about the public’s outrage may only make sense if your goal is to maintain your employment at an organization that requires zero accountability, like the NWS.

      1. Daniel G says:

        See Mr. Steffens, no matter the explination its never good enough. Case here in point. Trevor wants everything to be perfect in his little Trevor world where there are no accidents, the sun always shines and everyone in the government is correct (to his way of thinking)
        Weather is an imperfect science…get that thru your head. Always will be.

        1. gergoid says:

          Trevor has a point. On weekdays when a storm “may” produce a rumble of thunder and an inch of rain, we have six meteorologists on location and block by block radar interpretation. But this doesn’t happen on most weekends or holidays. Yes, their over coverage and assurances can lead to complacency by the public at other times. And nobody in Michigan could ever assume complete accuracy by the weather reporters.

  9. Daniel G says:

    A question about storm cycling here. This storm showed purple on the NWS radar at West Olive as it moved inland. Then it backed off to plain old red and burgundy. I stopped watching about then when the warning was issued for Kent and went outside to watch the light show to the south for awhile. Thats when the tornado struck. Now later on Mr Underwood was talking about this same storm over eastern Ionia County starting to wind up again, getting a good but weak rotation signature. I am assuming that this individual storm may have been cycling from stronger to weaker back to stronger from time to time.
    I had noticed that was mentioned about the tornadoes out in the plains this year. Strength ebbs and flows…as rain gets wrapped into the storm…like its breathing.
    Just wondering if this was the case…or if anyone was aware of this phenominon over here.

    1. Cort S. says:

      When it comes to classic supercells, understanding cycling is fairly straightforward: Think of it like a mini low-pressure system.

      The mesocyclone is your “low”. The rear-flank downdraft with associated surface gust front would be analogous to a cold front. If the RFD cold air is too dense for the environmental shear and storm motion to balance it out, the cold air will race forward and undercut the updraft airstream. The mesocyclone (with or without an associated tornado) would usually occlude at this point. A new mesocyclone may form farther to the east, completing the cycle.

      With the messy storms we had in Michigan on Sunday, there may be highly irregular strengthening and weakening depending on the precise local environment(s) the storm was moving through. It’s very tricky and chaotic, tough for anyone to understand even in hindsight.

      1. Daniel G says:

        Thank you Cort. Always a pleasure to read intelligent answers to a question.
        The storms Sunday nite were interesting to watch. The first group exploded right near shore around 7PM. One minute not there and then there they were. I think perhaps US31 was the trip wire for formation…not really but thats where they came up. Expanded fast!
        The second group, later on that evening, were small lil buggers but the one really whipped itself into a frenzy. Interesting watching the lightning to the south of us here on Myers Lake. Some brilliant flashes but they were a long way away, over 6 miles counting till the thunder arrived…but very neat to watch. Thats when I missed the one expand and go tornadic over my old neighborhood.
        Just took a trip thru there. Amazing sight to see, and yes I was out of everyones way. 48th street east of Eastern a few blocks looked like a bomb went off. Clay Ave south of 54th looked the same way but very very localized in only a couple of properties. Ideal Park? I didn’t even try that area. Went up 56th to Division and that was crushed. Many many old trees down. Sad to see but they’ll come back.
        Donate to the Red Cross if you want to help. People are going to need it.

  10. Hudsonville Barn Cat says:

    Excuses Excuses!!! Any meteorologist worth his salt would have seen that tornado a week before it touched down. Now here’s a list of the people I’m going to sue for not warning me in advance:


    1. Daniel G says:

      Don’t laugh HBC, there are people out there thinking like that!

  11. Joe from Ravenna says:

    I have a hard time believing that we can get any improvement short of putting a radar tower in every county, with a refresh rate of less than 30 seconds. That would be very expensive, in an area with very few tornadoes. Unless the technology gets super cheap, I don’t see the cost benefit for something we see very scarcely. Even in this situation where the tornado happened just a few miles relatively speaking from the GRR airport, we just didn’t get the warning, because it was over with before anyone could react to it.

    There is a geeky part of me that would like to see more tools, and have noticed that the radar images here in Ravenna don’t always correspond with what is happening on the ground because the storm cell is moving just north of town even though radar indicates it’s on top of us. I’ve already taken advantage of the fact that I live in an area that doesn’t see many tornadoes, I don’t see how spending scarce resources would make a meaningful incremental step. If prices were to dramatically drop then hey, why not. Having a 12″ diameter radar globe on the garage would be fun, but not very practical.

    I don’t like all the warnings we do get when nothing happens, I would be loath to see even more warnings and people get even more complacent. We live in a world where not everything comes with a warning. One has to expect that bad things do happen without warning.

    1. Cort S. says:

      It would be cool if we could install these CASA radars everywhere:

      Maybe some day. A big downside would be the mountain of information that meteorologists would have to deal with in real-time when numerous storms are happening across a wide area. But at least there would be more low-level information available whenever it is wanted.

  12. Dave in Jamestown says:

    Let me preface this by saying I am *not* a trained meteorologist, so I may have no clue what I’m talking about. But just an idea… based on the radar images, and the way the wind looks before the tornado happened, I’m wondering if this particular tornado was more of a large-scale “eddy” than a typical cell-formed tornado (thus adding to the difficulty in detecting it ahead of time).

    The stronger straight-line gusts are visible on the radar heading towards the slow-moving portion of the storm in the frame before it touched down, and it didn’t last very long, so it almost looks like that gust hit the section of slower-moving air and made an eddy when it hit.

    1. Cort S. says:

      That’s a good observation and hypothesis. It does look like there was some convergence occurring there before the tornado. It may not have been entirely straight-on convergence, but it still may have created some kind of broad, loosely organized eddy on the north side. The air within and just above this eddy may have managed to become buoyant enough to rise as an updraft, vertically stretching the broad rotation into a narrower and faster-spinning vortex (like a figure skater pulling her arms in to spin faster).

  13. I like what Daniel Cobb said at the news conference- if they issued a Tornado Warning for every storm that looked liked this one, they’d put out hundreds of warnings on storms that don’t produce tornadoes.

    Most tornado warnings don’t produce tornadoes anyway, of course.

    I was thinking the same thing about how if this was during the day, a spotter probably would have seen it and reported it. It’s also not easy given the location of the storm to KGRR. I’ve seen a TVS pop up on storms near the radar site before (not in this case) when they’re obviously not severe.

    I personally hope the National Weather Service doesn’t change a thing regarding how they go about issuing warnings based on this event.

  14. Bill, I agree with you 100%!! Trust me, I did a lot of Facebook defending myself. People just dont get it…

  15. Kevin (Marshall) says:

    Just curious…are those radar images from WOOD-TV radar or the National Weather Service?

  16. Dave says:

    I was wondering when SAILS would be deployed at GRR. Interesting that it’s happening now, given the recent tornado. The cynical side of me thinks GRR was selected sooner as damage control for the NWS and to save some face with the public. Can’t wait to see it up and running.

  17. DF (EGR) says:

    Having directly impacted family, who are homeless probably for months, this is unfortunately unforgivable. The NWS is there to warn people of life threatening situations and failed, NO EXCUSES needed. The excuses drive me crazy, just say sorry we failed and move on. They are extremely lucky no one died or we’d have a different discussion.

    I suggest you defenders, who are many of my blog buds, get down and volunteer to clean up and see what you think then.

  18. But again…a warning being issued wouldn’t have prevented any damage. So many people are arguing saying “oh if it was your home you’d be singing a different tune.” No, I personally wouldn’t. I’m not going to blame anyone for the wrath of mother nature. Just as with anything else, technology has flaws. I truly dont believe they are making excuses. I believe that the tornado was very difficult to detect due to the nature of it, and by the time they picked it up on radar it was too late. But again, the lack of warning did not affect the damage…people need to be more aware. I’ve been a weather nut my whole life…and when there is a severe storm you can bet I’m cautious and on the lookout regardless.

    1. DF (EGR) says:

      If they wouldn’t have heard the tornado with 15 seconds to spare they would have been dead still lying their bed. A siren or even a watch would have increased that time for those non-weather nuts. Not too difficult to understand I hope.

  19. I do understand, and I truly am sorry for those that had to experience it and had their homes destroyed. I feel like Bill did an excellent job explaining everything. If people want to blame the technology fine…are upgrades needed, yes. But I genuinely dont believe we can blame the NWS.

    1. DF (EGR) says:

      I never blamed them for a tornado. I am just saying they failed completely, nothing to defend. These people who nearly died were asleep because there was no watch or warning. Plenty of blame for that directed the NWS way…

  20. Paul says:

    I think Bill just wants to be on their side with their fancy new radar…lol

  21. Lynnette R. says:

    Well said Bill Steffen! I’ve been watching your forecasts since I was a young girl and I’m glad you are Chief meteorologist at wood TV 8.,I know you live in, and live thus area and I know you give the best indignation available to you.thank you for being loyal to West Michigan.that storm was unprecedented.

  22. Kels says:

    Nice article but for every other storm we have in the area a warning is issued and with a lot of those warnings, you also add that a tornado is possible. I live in a trailer park that had the tornado not changed paths it would have hit us, and there probably would’ve been fatalities, could you honestly still sit there and defend the NWS had that been the case?

  23. Bob says:

    This just goes to show that everyone must take an active role in personal safety.

  24. Scott Stuit says:

    If we cannot trust Bill Steffen with explaining the weather and the behind the scenes of the NWS, who can we trust. We are fortunate to have had him in our community for 40 years. Forecasting the weather is a science but not an exact science and it comes with great responsibility. Thank you Bill.

  25. Debra says:

    Hi Bill,
    If people do the very best they can, with the information they have at that moment, thats all that can be asked of them. That is what you did.
    Hope we are all safe tonight. Thank the Lord no one was kullef last weekend.
    Have a great weekend!

  26. Bob Potter says:

    I live on Burgis ave in kentwood and my nieborhood was tore up and I feel that even thou people love to point fingers at whos fault . Instead of all the people who were probably were not affected writing in to place blame you all should have been volunteering to help all the desperate people clean up all the debris, and by the way thank you too all that did respond with their help. Tonight at 5 a week later people are asked to bring trucks and trailers to help with the clean up. At the rec center on 48th st.
    As to you are weather men no body is perfect and I know you would have done anything to prevent harm to us. Dont wear it.

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