Tornado History: 2.6 mile wide OK monster is widest in U.S. history

Super Tornado

I keep thinking I’ve seen it all in my 30 year weather career.

Mother Nature keeps proving me wrong.

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Friday’s El Reno, OK tornado

Image: Jeff Snyder via Norman, Oklahoma NWS

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News today from NOAA that Friday’s El Reno, OK twister than killed 18 people was an incredible 2.6 miles wide. That’s the widest tornado ever recorded in U.S. history.

How big is 2.6 miles?

In Minneapolis, a 2.6 mile wide tornado would stretch from the northeast shore of Lake Calhoun through Uptown, Downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi River.

Here’s a map overlay of the El Reno track over Minneapolis from mapfrappe.com.

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University of Oklahoma professor Howie Bluestein and 2 graduate students clocked winds inside the tornado at 296 mph using mobile doppler on wheels. (DOW)

Needless to say that was a hot topic at Tuesday’s Twin Cities Integrated Warning Team meeting in Minneapolis. I was among a group of local broadcasters, meteorologists, emergency managers, researchers and NWS personnel coming together with the same goal.

How do we make sure the public is well informed…and as safe as possible if…no when the unthinkable happens in Minnesota?

An EF-4 or EF-5 tornado with 150 to 200 mph winds in the Twin Cities?

Don’t think for a second it can’t happen. It has happened in the past and it will occur again…most likely in your lifetime.

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El Reno, Oklahoma:

Remember that name. It will probably be burned into U.S weather records for a very long time. At least I hope so.

News today from the Norman, OK NWS that last Friday’s El Reno tornado rewrote weather history in the USA.

Mobile doppler data recorded wind of 296mph, and put the width of the deadly El Reno monster at an unprecedented 2.6 miles.

Here’s the statement from the Norman NWS.

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NORMAN OK

1206 PM CDT TUE JUN 4 2013

…UPDATE ON MAY 31 EL RENO TORNADO…

METEOROLOGISTS WITH THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE AND RESEARCHERS FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA AND THE CENTER FOR SEVERE WEATHER RESEARCH CONTINUE TO INVESTIGATE INFORMATION RELATED TO THE MAY 31 EL RENO TORNADO.

WITH THIS INVESTIGATION… THE TORNADO HAS BEEN UPGRADED TO AN EF5 TORNADO BASED ON VELOCITY DATA FROM THE RESEARCH MOBILE RADAR DATA FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA RAXPOL RADAR AND THE DOPPLER ON WHEELS RADARS FROM THE CENTER FOR SEVERE WEATHER RESEARCH. IN ADDITION… THE WIDTH OF TORNADO WAS MEASURED BY THE MOBILE RADAR DATA TO BE 2.6 MILES AFTER THE TORNADO PASSED EAST OF US HIGHWAY 81 SOUTH OF EL RENO. THIS WIDTH IS THE WIDTH OF THE TORNADO ITSELF AND DOES NOT INCLUDE THE DAMAGING STRAIGHT-LINE WINDS NEAR THE TORNADO AS DETERMINED BY THE HIGH-RESOLUTION MOBILE RADAR DATA. THE 2.6 MILE TORNADO PATH WIDTH IS BELIEVED TO BE THE WIDEST TORNADO ON RECORD IN THE UNITED STATES.

.EL RENO TORNADO

RATING: EF5

PATH LENGTH /STATUTE/: 16.2 MILES

PATH WIDTH /MAXIMUM/: 2.6 MILES

FATALITIES: N/A

INJURIES: N/A

START DATE: MAY 31 2013

START TIME: 6:03 PM CDT

START LOCATION: 8.3 WSW OF EL RENO /CANADIAN COUNTY /OK

NEAR COURTNEY ROAD ABOUT 1 MILE NORTH

OF REUTER ROAD

START LAT/LON: 35.495 / -98.095

END DATE: MAY 31 2013

END TIME: 6:43 PM CDT

END LOCATION: 6.2 ESE OF EL RENO /CANADIAN COUNTY /OK

NEAR INTERSTATE 40 AND BANNER ROAD

END LAT/LON: 35.502 / -97.848

$$

SMITH/GARFIELD/SPEHEGER/AUSTIN

An EF-5 tornado 2.6 miles wide? Think about that for a second.

Driving at 60 mph it would take you just over 2 and a half minutes just to drive through the tornado…if you could.

No wonder so many drivers and storm chasers were suddenly in peril as the tornado’s explosive growth occurred beneath the “parent mesocyclone.”

Check out this close up look from weather app RadarScope as dozens of chasers dangerously converge on the massive tornado. Each dot represents a storm chaser.

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Here’s more on the record event from Jason Samenow at capital Weather Gang.


The tornado that killed 18 people, including 4 storm chasers, west of Oklahoma City Friday was wider than any tornado ever observed or surveyed according to the National Weather Service and leading tornado researcher, Howard Bluestein. The massive El Reno, Okla. twister reached an unthinkable maximum width of 2.6 miles.

“This is the biggest ever,” Bluestein said.

The previous widest tornado on record was the F4-rated (on the 0-5 scale) Wilber – Hallam, Nebraska twister that touched down on May 22, 2004. It had a maximum width of 2.5 miles.

In addition to revising the path width of the El Reno tornado, the National Weather Service upgraded its intensity rating from EF-3 (on the 0-5 Enhanced Fujita scale) to EF-5, the highest level. The upgrade arose not due to the funnel’s girth, but because of astonishing wind speed information sensed from several mobile doppler radar units driven into the field by research meteorologists in pursuit of the tornado.

Bluestein, a University of Oklahoma professor, said two of his graduate students clocked wind speeds as high as 296 mph on their radar while observing the storm, which carved a 16.2-mile path over a period of 40 minutes.

That 296 mph gust came close to matching the highest wind speed ever measured on Earth. Joshua Wurman, another leading tornado researcher who runs the Center for Severe Weather Research, said his team recorded 301 mph winds in a tornado that struck near Moore, Okla. on May 3, 1999.

Here’s an incredible video of the tornado’s life cycle from chaser Nick Nolte. (No…not that Nick Nolte.)

The El Reno EF-5 is just the latest extreme…no record extreme… weather event in the USA.

Paul Huttner

  • Robert

    Is it likely that many more tornados (EF5’s, anyway) have winds near this velocity? The wind speeds they attribute to the different categories of tornados seem kind of arbitrary. I say that because 296 and 301 is quite a departure from the suggested range. Perhaps many more EF5’s are right up there too (and I believe it’s been documented that they do cause similar damage)?

    Also, does the newer EF rating scale only take into account damage when analyzing a likely rating of any particular tornado? Or do they also take into account wind speed. My understanding is that, at least previously, they did not take into account wind speed. If that’s true, then would this be the first time a tornado was upgraded based on mobile doppler data? This would also seem to point out the inherent flaws in rating tornados without such data.