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Severe weather model predicted tornado's path hours before it formed
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Severe weather model predicted tornado's path hours before it formed

NORMAN, Okla. - As severe weather brewed in the Texas panhandle late in the afternoon of May 16,  NOAA’s National Weather Service forecasters alerted residents in parts of western Oklahoma about the potential for large hail and damaging tornadoes that evening, particularly in the area around Elk City.

Ninety minutes later, a dangerous, rain-wrapped EF2 tornado struck the small town. It killed one, injured eight and destroyed about 200 homes and more than 30 businesses.  

Normally, meteorologists issue warnings based on radar depictions or spotter reports. By then, a tornado could be minutes from touching down.

This time, the NWS issued an additional advisory for parts of four counties in southwest Oklahoma stating “...a high probability that tornado warnings will be issued.” This unusual step was prompted by output from an experimental forecast model.

Introducing the "Warn on Forecast"

Forecasters that day were working with researchers from NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory testing the Warn-on-Forecast system that can predict the likelihood of extreme weather at specific locations up to three hours in advance.

It was the first time the Warn on Forecast (or WoF) model was used by the NWS in this way.

“We had a picture of the storms and their evolution before they became life-threatening. We used this model guidance to forecast with greater lead time and greater confidence,” said Todd Lindley, science operations officer with the NOAA NWS Norman Forecast Office.

“Based on the information from the NWS, we knew storms would intensify when they reached our area and were able to activate the outdoor warning sirens about 30 minutes ahead of the tornado,” said Lonnie Risenhoover with Beckham County Emergency Management.

That morning, the NOAA Storm Prediction Center had forecast significant tornadoes in the region. In the early afternoon the NWS issued a particularly dangerous situation tornado watch for 33 counties in western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle.

During the mid-afternoon, WoF prototype forecasts began to identify an area in West Texas as the starting point for potential life-threatening weather.

“That level of detail and lead time in a forecast is new,” said NSSL Director Steve Koch. “To have information conveying a sense of certainty in so small of an area that far in advance is a success.”

The WoF combines the best technologies from NSSL in Norman and NOAA’s Global Systems Division at the Earth Systems Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado.

WoF isn’t operational yet, but it represents a significant step on NOAA’s path to providing more precise hazardous weather information to the public sooner. This provides a glimpse into the positive impact WoF models can have, but more work still needs to be done.

Researchers working alongside forecasters

The WoF is just one example of how NOAA weather researchers work hand-in-hand with forecasters to develop new tools to protect lives, property and commerce. This takes place every spring in the NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed, a specially designed, high-tech facility where researchers, forecasters, emergency managers, broadcast journalists and private sector meteorologists develop and evaluate emerging technologies and science for NWS operations.

The foundation of the WoF prototype is an experimental hourly updating regional analysis and prediction system developed by GSD. It is a spinoff of GSD’s High Resolution Rapid Refresh severe weather forecast model now in operation at all NWS offices.

 For more information, contact Keli Pirtle, NOAA Communications, at or 405-325-6933.


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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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