45th Anniversary of Union City Tornado

I was reminded earlier this evening that it is 45th anniversary of an exceptionally important storm: The Union City, Oklahoma, Tornado. We probably learned more from this tornado than any other single storm in history. 

Doppler Radar
NSSL Norman Doppler Radar
While a Weather Bureau experimental radar in Wichita demonstrated Doppler radar could be used to detect tornadoes in 1958, that analog Doppler was completely impractical for real-time storm diagnosis and warning. In the 1970's, the National Severe Storm Laboratory (NSSL) ran two Doppler radars, one in Norman and the other in Cimmaron, Oklahoma. The Union City storm was in the perfect location to be tracked during its entire life-cycle by both. One radar tracking the storm would have been a step forward. Two meant, for the first time, a 3-D mapping of the winds could be done.

Storm Chasers
The year before, the first organized storm chase program in history began. For Union City, there were two chase teams that intercepted and documented the storm. We learned about the life-cycles of supercell-type tornadoes from those photos and accounts.
Union City Tornado soon after it touched down.
Map of tornado and its life-cycle. 
Storm Warnings
Union City directly lead to:
  • Deployment of Doppler radar network across the United States. 
  • Value of storm chasers and trained storm spotters' contributions to tornado warning decisions.
  • Separating supercell tornado life-cycles from the other types of tornadic storms. 
  • The above have all lead to much more accurate tornado warnings. 

I was one of those early tornado chasers but I was out-of-town that day, so I was not one of the chasers who skillfully intercepted the storm.


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