REMEMBERING THE JOPLIN TORNADO: A look back at the conditions fueling storm on May 22, 2011

11 year anniversary of the May 22nd Joplin tornado
10 year anniversary of the May 22nd Joplin tornado
Published: May. 22, 2021 at 10:36 AM CDT|Updated: May. 22, 2023 at 9:17 AM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - 2011 was an active tornado season. April brought the super tornado outbreak to the southeast United States when 42 tornadoes formed between April 25 and 28.

The outbreak fueled three EF-5 tornadoes, the strongest on the scale, in addition to 12 EF-4 tornadoes and 21 EF-3 tornadoes. It was one of the most deadliest and expensive disasters on record.

The Joplin tornado only added to an already shocked and devastated Nation.

May 22nd, 2011

2011 Joplin tornado
2011 Joplin tornado(KYTV)

The atmosphere was primed for severe weather. In the upper levels of the atmosphere, low pressure was located over western Minnesota with embedded short-wave troughs. These short-wave troughs act as strong triggers for thunderstorm development. The most notable shortwave trough was found in Kansas, with low pressure extending all the way to the surface.

Strong winds in the upper levels of the atmosphere were supported by winds in the mid and lower levels. Southerly winds at the surface, which turned clockwise with height, added spin potential to the atmosphere.

The day started warm and humid. High levels of instability were supportive of supercell thunderstorm formation.

2011 Joplin tornado
2011 Joplin tornado(KYTV)

The surface map before the formation of the Joplin supercell had low pressure out in Kansas. An extending cold front separated a region of cooler and drier air. A dry line was also present out in Oklahoma, acting as a boundary between very warm and moist air in the Ozarks and hot and dry air in central Oklahoma. The point where these air masses came together is known as the triple point.

The triple point was located in the vicinity of the surface low pressure. This triple point is an indicator of increasing potential for severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes are common near or ahead of the triple point. It was near this region that the Joplin tornado supercell formed. As the supercell advanced into Missouri, it spawned the Joplin tornado.

The tornado created a devastating damage path of over 22 miles. With winds gusting over 200 mph. It was rated an EF-5 after damage surveys. The tornado was a rare multi-vortex tornado, where the smaller cyclones within the parent twister acted as regions of stronger winds and caused even greater destruction.

2011 Joplin tornado
2011 Joplin tornado(KYTV)

It was one of the deadliest and costliest tornadoes in history.

Since the Joplin tornado, there has only been one other EF-5 tornado. May 20 marked the anniversary of the 2013 Moore, Oklahoma, tornado.

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