Why Killer Tornado Caught Meteorologists by Surprise

By Orrick, Dave | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Why Killer Tornado Caught Meteorologists by Surprise


Orrick, Dave, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Dave Orrick Daily Herald Staff Writer

No one saw them coming.

Shortly before 5 p.m. -only an hour before a legion of as many as 14 tornadoes marched through the southwestern reaches of the suburbs, killing eight - six National Weather Service meteorologists in Romeoville were preparing for a night of scattered thunderstorms. Nothing more.

The national Storm Prediction Center's most recent "Convective Outlook," issued at 3 p.m., showed west-central Illinois stood a "slight" risk of tornadoes.

Then in Lincoln, the central Illinois office of the National Weather Service south of Peoria, eyes switched to Champaign County, where several small funnel clouds had spun off a rapidly developing supercell.

"That heightened our awareness to the possibility of tornadoes to the north and east," meteorologist Brad Churchill recalled. That was 5:14 p.m.

The witches' broth for tornadoes - a rigid boundary forming as warm air surged north into a cold air mass while strong winds above 10,000 feet created wind sheer, forcing the rotation that spawns tornadoes - was brewing in a tropospheric cauldron.

The developments hadn't been predicted. But it wasn't too late.

In Romeoville, the suburbs' distant early-warning center, an extra half-dozen meteorologists were called in.

"We saw it develop," said Jim Stefkovich, meteorologist in charge of Romeoville. "But we were unsure of exactly where the boundary was going to be."

That's where a combination of computer technology and human experience came in, reading instant Doppler radar data and inferring what it meant. The office sent barrages of tornado warnings in Will, LaSalle, Kankakee, Ford, Iroquois and Grundy counties. …

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