Storm Prediction Center Director visits West Michigan

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WALKER, MI. — It may not seem like too big of a deal…but trust me…it is! When the Director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma visits the area, it is quite the rare thing. Dr. Russell Schneider has been the Director at the NOAA National Weather Service facility for several years and is basically a “rock star” to some of us meteorologists in the business. Why? SPC is the organization responsible for forecasting, monitoring, and issuing severe thunderstorm watches and tornado watches each and everyday across the entire nation!

Dr. Schneider was in town this weekend at Kenowa Hills High School and was the keynote speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak across the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region back on April 11 and 12 1965.

He confirmed what we’ve been saying for years…Michigan is way overdue for a major severe weather outbreak! That said, don’t ever believe that Lake Michigan can knock down and diminish severe thunderstorms coming in from the west each and every time. While the lake can/has influenced and diminished some of these storms (especially in the late winter/early spring due to very cold water temps), a true severe weather outbreak like the Hudsonville/Standale tornado in 1956 or the Palm Sunday outbreak in 1965 will not be influenced by Lake Michigan…the dynamics with these types of synoptic (or system setup) is just too great and will easily supersede the small-scale or meso-effects of the lake.

We also learned from local National Weather Service meteorologist Ernie Ostuno (moderator of the event) that the Palm Sunday tornado (1965) that began in Ottawa County and roared through Kent County (Comstock Park/Alpine Township) was thought to have a path of just over 20 miles. New data and closer research now reveals that path was more on the order of 34 miles in length.

Our FOX 17 viewers have three lines of defense before and during severe weather. The first line is the Storm Prediction Center itself…issuing convective (thunderstorm) outlooks days in advance of possible severe storms. We make it routine to convey this information in our weather forecasts far in advance of the actual event. The second line of defense is the local chapter of the National Weather Service. Once SPC has placed West Michigan in a thunderstorm or tornado WATCH, the local NWS is responsible for issuing the actual thunderstorm or tornado WARNING. The third line of defense then becomes broadcast meteorologists that convey that information, track the storms, and warn of the threats here in West Michigan.

Our technology is light years ahead of what it was in 1956 and 1965 during those outbreaks. In fact, the design and implementation of our current WSR- 88D doppler radar stemmed from the latter event. It is what we use today! It can show meteorologists things like rain, the intensity of that rain, hail (and potential size), and velocity (or wind data). This velocity can actually detect rotation within a storm.

To browse the SPC website click here. You’ll see the same convective (thunderstorm) outlooks we see, plus things like daily storm reports across the nation before/during/after a severe weather event. We should also note that SPC “outlooks” for days in advance of a severe weather event changed this year. Instead of a slight, moderate, and high risk…the categories are now marginal, slight, enhanced, moderate, and high. It’s rare that Michigan ends up in a “high” risk, but it can happen. The scale shouldn’t be thought of as a one through five scale…since it increases almost exponentially from enhanced to moderate and moderate to high. The newly added category of “enhanced” is considered the upper end of the “slight” risk, but still far from the next category of a “moderate” risk. Their decision to add the marginal risk (the lowest on the scale) was in an effort to include areas with a lower than “slight risk” of severe weather. The decision to add the enhanced risk was in an effort to show a little bit better or defined chance (other than a simple slight risk) of severe weather.

I should also note that we have officially started Severe Weather Awareness Week. Click here for more from the National Weather Service. While we may not be able to prevent another major severe weather outbreak, we can minimize or completely mitigate the lives that can be lost in the future (versus the past) with current technology and proper warning. Make sure to get a NOAA weather radio. Click here for more on these radios.

Except for some showers through about midday Monday, this will be a relatively quiet and uneventful week of weather for West Michigan. Make sure to check out for the current forecast. Have a pleasant week!

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