What does a tornadic thunderstorm look like from space? The GOES-16 satellite captured a stunning view of a Texas supercell Sunday evening as it dropped a photogenic twister amid a busy day for severe weather in the Plains.
The twister struck just east of Tahoka, a community of 2,600 about 20 minutes south of Lubbock. It quickly grew into a large tornado, with the National Weather Service warning, “This tornado is wrapped in dust and rain and may be difficult to see.” The warning was labeled PDS — a rare “particularly dangerous situation.”
No injuries were reported, but the storm damaged power lines and barns and tore the roof off a home, according to EverythingLubbock.com. The tornado was one of 23 reported to the National Weather Service between Texas and Nebraska on Sunday.
Video shot by storm chasers shows the tornado dancing elegantly and ominously as it becomes enshrouded in rain, hail and dust. The dust acts as a tracer showing the pattern of the winds near the surface as they feed into the vortex from all angles. It’s a remarkable scene — but 22,236 miles above the surface, the view was equally impressive.
The GOES-16 satellite tracks cloud-top temperatures, a good indicator of just how high is a cloud. As the cap (a stable air layer that prevents early storm formation) erodes and storms explode, towers can be seen billowing upward like steam penned up beneath a lid in a pot of boiling water.
To better understand this feature on satellite, imagine holding a flaming lighter a few inches beneath a giant piece of white paper. The spot of paper just above the lighter would quickly become discolored and eventually burn. Then imagine moving the paper, as though it’s being blown by jet steam winds. Now instead of a burn, there’s a dark stripe marking all the places torched by this heat source. That’s kind of how an intense anvil can stretch so far downstream of a very localized heat source.
It’s important to note that the towering anvil cloud is not a hot plume, rather, a thick cloud of frozen particles (ice crystals and snow flakes).
Remnants of the storm’s anvil are carried hundreds of miles downwind, over long distances by the strong jet stream winds. Meanwhile, a constant plume of upward motion farther west sustains the behemoth storm, its updraft plume marked by a bubble of red colors. That’s the “overshooting top” — the product of an updraft so strong the storm punctures the tropopause — ordinarily an effective “ceiling” or stable layer for weather systems. But when a pocket of air rises with enough momentum, it struggles to put the brakes on even when it shouldn’t be able to rise. That’s a surefire sign of a vicious storm.
As a result, the cloud tops are extremely cold since they reach so high. Some may appear a bit warmer because of contact with the stratosphere — a region about 10-12 miles above the ground where temperature climbs with height.
At the same time, ripples can be seen propagating throughout the anvil. These are little waves in the upper atmosphere caused by disturbances originating from the turbulence around the overshooting top. It would be like diving to the bottom of a pool and then blowing a really big bubble. When that pocket rises (less dense) and then hits the top, concentric wavelets would ripple outward from the center.
Ground-based radars offered an equally remarkable perspective, peering into the storm and noting a rain-free void where the updraft was so intense that precipitation was unable to fall. Dust along a boundary wrapping into the tornadic circulation can be seen, as well.
They’re images that combine natural beauty with raw destructive power, and similar scenes may unfold on the Plains in the days ahead. Following scattered afternoon storms Monday, a more significant severe weather event could play out Tuesday and Wednesday.
It was October 2012 when the European weather prediction model beat its American counterpart in forecasting Hurricane Sandy’s hard left turn into the U.S. coastline. What scientists had known for years — that the European forecast model was superior to the American — caught the attention of the U.S. public and Congress.
Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with funding support from Congress, has worked intensely to improve the American model. It has boosted its computing power, improved the way it brings in data, and enhanced how it simulates weather systems at small scales. Yet, more than six years later, it still trails the European model in overall accuracy.
Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA and a meteorologist, is committed to closing the gap between the models. Since being appointed to the Trump administration, he has made one of his top priorities installing a process that will allow U.S. forecast modeling to reach its potential and become world-class.
As part of its 2020 budget request, to the tune of $15 million, NOAA has proposed the establishment of the Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC), which it says “will advance U.S. weather modeling and reclaim international leadership in the area of numerical weather prediction.”
In an interview, Jacobs blamed recent U.S. modeling shortfalls on a lack of research investment. He said the United States now spends about the same amount on operating its flagship model, the Global Forecast System (GFS), as it does on research initiatives to improve it. By contrast, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts spends roughly five times as much on research. Jacobs said he’d like to see NOAA “grow research five times” to keep pace.
This is where EPIC comes in.
The town of Silverton and San Juan County have closed all travel on county roads because of high avalanche danger and are strongly encouraging people to avoid recreating in the backcountry.
In a news release issued Thursday afternoon, San Juan County’s Office for Emergency Management said county roads 2, 33 and 110, as well as Shrine Road, are closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
“These road closures are about safety due to avalanche danger,” said spokeswoman DeAnne Gallegos. “Natural slides are running and covering the roads.”
Silverton officials also strongly discourage recreational use of the backcountry while high avalanche danger conditions exist.
“Our resources are maxed out,” Gallegos said, “and it’s incredibly dangerous.”
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has listed the avalanche danger as “considerable” in the southern San Juan Mountains. Silverton officials fear the historic snow amounts have raised the potential risk for anyone venturing into the mountains.
“The worry is, with all this great powder, everyone and their brother are going to be out there,” said San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir.
Brian Lazar, deputy director for CAIC, said the continuous snowfall in recent weeks has loaded up avalanche paths. As a result, when avalanches occur, they are big.
“These are not the type of avalanches you walk away from with a close call,” he said. “For people out there skiing, the threat is, if you end up triggering one of these avalanches, you are unlikely to survive.”
San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said he has jurisdiction to shut down public lands if it is a safety issue. However, at this time, he is opting to instead hope people take the stern warning to stay out of the backcountry while it remains avalanche prone.
A spokeswoman with U.S. Forest Service said the agency does not typically close public lands because of avalanche danger. The Bureau of Land Management did not respond to requests for comment.
Gallegos said Thursday crews will not trigger avalanches on Kendall Mountain that have the potential of reaching the town of Silverton for liability and safety reasons.
The blasting would have been a preemptive step to lessen the danger and bring snow down in a relatively controlled manner.
Two avalanche paths – the Idaho and Rabbit Ears – present risks to several homes on the east side of town.
A naturally triggered avalanche on the Idaho path reached the Animas River last week, Fetchenheir said. But storms this week put another 2 or 3 feet of snow in the mountains, renewing the fear of a slide.
Though blasting is not planned as of now, conditions could change and warrant the action, Gallegos said.
In the meantime, town officials are warning of avalanche danger, even around the perimeter of Silverton.
Roof avalanches, as well as damage to propane tank systems, are also dangers to be considered, officials said.
Silverton Mountain, on County Road 110, has suspended operations after a slide recently cut off access to the ski area.
On Wednesday, another slide ran across County Road 2, almost reaching an industrial park, Fetchenheir said.
Cement Fill slide path just a couple of miles north of Silverton and south of Red Mt. Pass
Last year archaeologists in Peru announced the discovery of a centuries-old ritual massacre, at a site they believed was the largest known case of child sacrifice ever found.
Buried beneath the sands of a 15th-century site called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas were nearly 140 child skeletons, as well as the remains of 200 llamas.
While the reasoning behind the gruesome mass murder of the boys and girls — who were only between the ages of 5 and 14 — cannot be definitively determined, the researchers now say the act was done out of desperation in response to a disastrous climatic event: El Niño.
“What we seem to have at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas is a sacrifice to stop torrential rains, flooding and mudflows,” said John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University and an author of the paper, which was published Wednesday in PLOS One.
The finding provides insight into the rituals of the ancient Chimú civilization that inhabited Peru’s northern coast. It also attempts to piece together the story behind why people murdered these children, presumably by cutting open their chests and ripping out their hearts.
One day in 2011 a man named Michele Spano Pescara approached Gabriel Prieto, an archaeologist at the National University of Trujillo in Peru. He said that his children had dug up bones near his home. When Dr. Prieto followed the man to the site, he was astonished.
“There were so many complete human remains and complete bodies in perfect states of preservation everywhere,” said Dr. Prieto, who led the study.
Dr. Prieto called in a colleague, Katya Valladares, who investigated the skeletons and identified cut marks on many of the children’s sternums. That indicated that the burial site was not a group cemetery, but rather the location of an orchestrated killing event.
From 2011 to 2016, Dr. Prieto and his colleagues dug up 137 complete child skeletons and the remains of more than 200 llamas in an area that stretched about 7,500 square feet.
Some bodies had been buried in cloth, some wore cotton headdresses and others had red-cinnabar paint preserved on their skulls. Buried beside many of the victims were young llamas, each less than 18 months old. They too were sacrificed. The team noticed that the children were buried facing west to the coast while the llamas faced east to the Andes Mountains.
Using radiocarbon dating, the site was dated to about 1450 A.D., which placed it at a time before the neighboring Inca empire invaded. The team also attempted to collect DNA from the teeth of some victims but were only successful in a fraction of cases. What they got was enough to tell them that both boys and girls were present, meaning the sacrifice wasn’t gender specific. Further DNA analysis could help determine whether the children were local or if they came from across the Chimú state, but based on some morphological details the team thinks the victims came from around the empire.
A major clue to figuring out why the Chimú sacrificed the children came in the form of a thick mud layer preserved on top of the sand where the victims were buried. Because the area is a desert, the mud layer indicated there was once a period of heavy rain, like that seen during an El Niño, or a natural warming of the Pacific Ocean’s surface waters that has cascading effects on the weather. Such a deluge would have devastated the Chimú state, flooding crops, killing fish and sweeping people away.
Also in this mud layer, the scientists found preserved footsteps of sandaled adults and barefoot children, as well as signs that the llamas were dragged there. The children, it appeared, were marched to the site, which was just on the outskirts of the Chimú capital city, Chan Chan. The killings, the authors suggest, were done at the order of the Chimú state as an appeal to their gods or ancestral spirits to mitigate the rains.
“The picture that starts to emerge is that under conditions of severe climatic disruption, the sacrifice of children may have been the most powerful means of communication with the supernatural,” said Haagen Klaus, a bioarchaeologist from George Mason University in Virginia not involved in the study.
Tiffiny Tung, a bioarchaeologist at Vanderbilt University also not involved in the study, said that in addition to illuminating the Chimú’s rituals, the finding provides a look into the state’s political machinery. The sacrifice, she said, would have let the Chimú leaders demonstrate to their people the lengths to which they would go to appease the deities and protect the community. At the same time, carrying out such a massive slaughter of children would have been a reminder of the leaders’ power and authority over their citizens.
“That’s a great way to get people to step in line,” she said.