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Fairview meteorology student witnesses massive Okla. tornado

By Kevin Kelley
Fairview Park

“Complete destruction.”

That’s how Fairview Park native Brian Shell described the aftermath of the massive tornado that struck Moore, Okla., May 20, killing 24 and destroying 1,200 homes.

Shell, an atmospheric science major at The Ohio State University, was in Oklahoma last week with eight fellow meteorology students and seven of their friends. The trip’s purpose was twofold, Shell said: first, to visit the federal government’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.; and second, to chase severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

“We actually picked (last) week five to six months ago,” Shell said of the timing for the trip, organized on an informal basis by the students, not the university. The students had contemplated calling the trip off because there had been so few tornadoes this spring, he said.

The OSU students had been studying computer weather models, looking for indications that severe storms may be brewing. The previous day, they had spotted two tornadoes.

Ohio State University atmospheric sciences student Brian Shell next his car, in which he and fellow students followed the destructive Oklahoma tornado. (West Life photo by Kevin Kelley)

On May 20, they knew through the Internet that other storm chasers were farther to the south, believing that storms were more likely to break out there.

Some in the Ohio State group wanted to join them. But Shell and some others saw indications that a strong storm might emerge close to Norman, where they were staying. Norman is just 9 miles south of Moore. The weather radar clue, Shell said, was a bulge in the dry line; that is, where hot, dry air meets hot, moist air.

The storm developed just before 2 p.m.

“It happened extremely quickly,” Shell said. Within 45 minutes, clear skies gave way to the formation of a supercell, a thunderstorm characterized by a rotating updraft.

This image, from a video taken by Brian Shell, shows the Moore, Okla., tornado as it is growing in strength.

The storm produced only one funnel cloud, Shell said. But within just three to six minutes, the tornado grew from 50 yards in diameter to more than one mile wide, he said.

The students approached the storm from the southeast, which Shell said is the safest way, as tornadoes tend to move west to east. However, Shell, who said he has been fascinated with weather since he was 5, acknowledged there’s no completely safe way to chase storms.

“Some members of our group were a little concerned,” Shell said. The students came within a mile of the twister, he said.

The students observed the storm for about 10 minutes. During that time, Shell said he noticed a huge cloud of debris forming around the cloud.

“I realized it was going to be a terrible situation,” he recalled.

The group eventually retreated as roads became covered with debris. They were also conscious not to interfere with rescue efforts.

The National Weather Service later declared the Moore tornado to be an EF5, the most powerful, with winds more than 210 mph.

Shell, who will graduate this fall, said the Moore case underscores just how quickly deadly tornadoes can form.

“We went from clear skies to an EF4 tornado in about an hour,” he said.

The storm cut electrical and cellphone service to the area, Shell noted, underscoring the importance of emergency weather radios.

“It’s something every household should have,” he said of the devices.

There’s still a lot more that meteorologists need to learn about tornadoes and how they form, Shell said. That’s one of the reasons why people like him chase tornadoes.

While some storm chasers earn money taking videos of tornados for television news outlets, Shell said he does it to improve his knowledge and his forecasting abilities.

“There’s no better way to test your forecasting skills than going out and seeing if you’re right,” he told West Life.

Chasing severe storms requires split-second decisions, both to stay safe and be able to spot tornadoes.

Is global warming responsible for creating more extreme storms such as the Moore tornado?

“It’s impossible to make that call at this point,” Shell said, explaining that the computer models are not advanced enough to make that determination. Much of the increased perception of severe weather damage, Shell said, is due to the expansion of population centers and settlement of areas vulnerable to powerful storms.

Shell, who has been chasing storms for a little more than a year, said Northeast Ohio is not a good place to look for tornadoes. It’s too hilly, he said.

The 2008 Fairview High School graduate said he intends to pursue an advanced degree in meteorology and then either teach or work for the National Weather Service.

 

 

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