10 Amazing Facts about the El Reno Tornado!

The El Reno tornado, shortly after development. Photo credit: Gabe Garfield

Video capture of the El Reno tornado
 (Gabe Garfield)

The weather radar conference is ongoing in Colorado this week, and one of the conference papers features some eye-popping statistics regarding the 31 May El Reno tornado.  This paper, authored by Josh Wurman and others, is titled “Preliminary Results from the ROTATE-2013 Season”.  Now,  for the facts …

  • Near Highway 81, the El Reno tornado achieved a peak forward motion of 55 mph!  This is comparable to the highest translational velocities of tornadoes ever observed by the Doppler on Wheels (DOWs).
  • After the tornado crossed Highway 81, the sub-vortices (smaller tornadoes) within the larger circulation grew to mammoth proportions.  The largest were bigger than the size of 3 football fields combined!  (Most parent tornadoes do not reach this size!)
  • As the tornado approached Highway 81, small vortices developed on the northwest side of the circulation and “fed” the circulation.  Similar vortex behavior was noted with the gigantic Seward, Kansas tornado (23 May 08).
  • The tornado displayed vortices on multiple scales, similar to matryoshka dolls.  This “tornado within a tornado” behavior was noted shortly before the tornado crossed 81.   At that time, the tornado had two prominent vortices: an inner vortex, about 150 yards in width; and an outer vortex, about 1.25 miles in diameter.  Wurman notes this behavior in other large tornadoes, including the Kellerville, Texas (8 June 95) and Harper, Kansas (12 May 04) tornadoes.
  • One of the most intense sub-vortices during the El Reno tornado translated at an incredible 180 mph!  Curiously, this sub-vortex was also stationary at times during its 2 minute life-span.
  • At 6:26 p.m., the DOWs measured a 255 mph gust in a sub-vortex just south of Interstate 40.  This exceeds the EF5 threshold by over 50 mph.
  • Given the fast translation of this sub-vortex, a stationary observer would have only experienced these maximum winds for 0.5 seconds.  Talk about acceleration!
  • Applying a theoretical model (Rankine vortex) to the tornado yields velocities between 290 and 330 mph!  Of course, this assumes the theory is a good model of the real atmosphere (among other caveats) – but still, it’s very impressive.
  • Officially listed at 2.6 miles in diameter, the El Reno tornado is the largest tornado on record.  But it might also be the largest tornado ever documented.  Using the 30 m/s wind threshold (and excluding the rear-flank downdraft winds), the tornado was an unbelievable 4.3 miles wide!!  (Even using a 50 m/s threshold yields a 3.1 mile wide tornado … unbelievable!)  For comparison, this is larger than the Mulhall tornado (3 May 99), which was the previous standard-bearer for behemoth tornadoes (2.8 miles in diameter using the 30 m/s threshold).

    EDIT: The 4.3 mile width in the paper refers to the parent circulation of the tornado, not necessarily the tornado itself.  It should also be noted that the 4.3 mile width was > 300 feet above ground level, not necessarily corresponding to the size of the tornado.

  • In addition to the gigantic cyclonic tornado, the El Reno storm simultaneously produced a strong anti-cyclonic tornado.  This tornado featured powerful sub-vortices (potentially, the first ever documented) with winds peaking around 145 mph!

(Here is my video of the El Reno tornado.)

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About Gabe Garfield

I am a research meteorologist from Norman, Oklahoma. In addition to my work, I am interested in storm chasing, sports, philosophy, theology, and culture.
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65 Responses to 10 Amazing Facts about the El Reno Tornado!

  1. Lee says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article. It’s made more interesting by the fact that one of my friends is a meteorology major at OU.

  2. Pingback: Some Interesting Facts on the El Reno Tornado |

  3. Mike Dross says:

    Very nice! Thanks for all the details. Do you know at what approx altitude the max wind gust was measured by the DOW? Do you think it is reasonably reliable given the spectrum width and other data you all collected? Thanks!

    -Mike

    • Hi Mike!

      Thanks! The 255 mph gust was found at 375 ft above ground level. Another radar, OU RaXPol, found winds of 270 – 290 (essentially) at ground level (the radar was parked on an overpass and was scanning slightly downward). Regarding the spectrum width, I believe there is high confidence in the reliability of the data.

  4. allthingsgeography1 says:

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography.

  5. Jed Castles says:

    Fascinating details. Thanks!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Using a 30 m/s wind threshold, all tornadoes will be wider.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Anonymous” is actually Herb…. Hi Gabe… was too lazy to fill in the blanks.
    That’s cool stuff… glad I was in El Reno but sorry I missed the Radar Conf.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As someone that sat for FOUR HOURS in a garage shelter watching this thing move this isn’t surprising to me. Right before we got in to the shelter we saw it approaching from the north (we were in Mustang) and it was massive. Toward the end of it there was this amazing hurricane like wind that I can only describe as “backlash”. There were also short periods of stillness throughout, much like the eye of a hurricane. When we came out there was quite a bit of damage to roofs and out building and we were at least 5 miles away from it. It was not your typical twister. Thank you for the great report!

  9. Anonymous says:

    And this is an EF3? Really?

      • No. This was classified as an EF-5 tornado by the NWS in late June-early July, but if it had subvortices in it, then in MY book, it was an EF-6/ F-6. I still prefer to go by the Fujita scale, instead of the Enhanced Fujita, and I was in Tennessee at that time. My dad moved us to Maine over that same summer too. He thought if it happened there, then it could happen where we used to live… Hahaha 😀

  10. Jess says:

    Gabe, if I read Josh and Tim’s paper correctly, it seems as though one of those sub-vortices is what got Tim and Carl and Paul, am I correct? It seems as though they never really had a chance if that is the case. Thanks for posting this blog, this, along with Tim and Josh’s paper was an interesting read, even though some of the meterological speak was hard to understand. May 31 was an unbelievable day in so many ways.

    • Yes, a single sub-vortex was responsible for killing Tim, Paul, and Carl. This sub-vortex wasn’t particularly powerful (winds up to 180 mph), but it had a long residence time over their location. It was extremely unfortunate, as they likely would have survived if they had been in a slightly different location.

      Thanks for reading!

      • I am still mourning that. Tim was my favourite storm chaser on that series. After that was Sean and after that was Reed.

      • Jim Eischen says:

        I came upon the storm chasers’ battered car in a ditch SE of El Reno the day after the tornado. It was at least a mile away in all directions from any dwellings. It looked like the tornado had rolled it into a crushed can. It wasn’t until I saw it on the news that I learned it had been occupied. I still have photos of it and other damage in my phone.

  11. I’ve included a link to this blogpost on my weather blog for the Wichita Eagle, “Finger on the Weather.” Compelling details in that research paper.

  12. Anonymous says:

    As someone who was a pasenger/navigator doing a rabbit run South on 81 just barely staying ahead of it and having to relay map info to stay out of it I also kept my eye to the sky and first hand watched all of this action while explaining it to my nephew who was watching with terror and fascination.. We’ve never left our house before but the air just felt wrong and we passed the spot where it crossed 81 by only 5 min but was going as fast as possible because of the vortices and looky loos who had no business being out there parking and standing in the road way I couldn’t really observe to much until we cut back West. . It was so full of energy and still hungry. . It was an terrifying yet amazing sight to see. . I love weather and this was a one in a lifetime experience I’ll never forget..
    bren – el reno, ok

    • It was a very scary situation … it seems likely that a “chaser traffic jam” near Highway 81 cost some lives that day. It seems that Oklahoma City, storm chasers, and violent tornadoes don’t mix.

      Thanks for your input!

    • Fred says:

      Being a 40 plus year Law Enforcement Officer, I have Chased and been chased by about 15 tornados since Union City was destroyed in 1973. This is the first tornado
      that caused me to think the odds had ran out and I sought shelter. In flow winds were somewhere around 95mph plus. It was a good thing we did because of the flying debris. When the main vortex was about 1/2 mile away I went to shelter in a neighbors basement. Her house was virtually untouched. My home, vehicles and barn were wiped out by that main vortex. Our ears popped 3 times, telling me 3 tornados passed near her home. Yes it was amazing to see but not so amazing to come outside and see the devastation left behind.
      Fred-El Reno, Ok

  13. Pingback: Tornado Quest Gee-O-Science Links: Sept. 16 – 22, 2013 | Welcome To Tornado Quest

  14. From Ernest Lee near Huntsville AL . That was amazing information !! Can it be possible that this is a trend of increasing tornado size and wind velocity over a period of time as a result of climate change ?? Just imagine if that storm had hit a densely populated area . I pray that doesn’t happen but I believe it will sooner than we think .

    • Hi Ernest!

      It’s hard to say. We haven’t gotten a fix yet on how climate change might be affecting tornado production. There are so many climate variables, and they all have an impact on the conditions that create tornadoes.

      Yeah, this tornado wasn’t far at all from the western sides of the OKC Metro. Had it hit, it would’ve been catastrophic. Like you said, I think such a disaster is likely to happen sooner than we think (owing to urban sprawl).

  15. Tim Marshall says:

    The EF scale has a baseline of a point measurement, three second gust, at 10 meters above ground. Measured Doppler velocities are volumetric averages, instantaneous, at various azimuths. Thus, corrections are needed to compare Doppler derived estimates with the EF-scale winds.

    • Thanks for your input, Tim!

      That is certainly the case. My question is, how does residence time of intense winds over a point affect damage? That is, how much time is needed for a particularly wind to do a particular type of damage?

      I’m beginning to wonder greatly, as I understand now that the vortex that hit the TWISTEX Cobalt had a Doppler velocity of “only” 180 mph. Yet, there was gravel scouring at that location. It’s clear from your paper with Josh that the responsible sub-vortex made a loop over that area, slowing down the ground-relative speed and allowing for a long residence time over that location. Was gravel scouring present with the stronger, fast-moving sub-vortices?

  16. Denise says:

    Hi! Thanks for sharing this info. I live in Union City, OK on SW 44th St. (About seven miles south on 81 from El Reno). I was just curious if you knew where you were parked (what street?) when you were filming your footage in my town? Would just like to know truly how close it got to my house. Thanks!

    • Hi Denise! It looks like you were close! The edge of the tornado was about 1 – 1.5 miles north of SW 44th. My footage going south on HW 81 was taken between SW 15th and SW 29th. Hope that helps!

  17. Jacqueline Madison says:

    I was there and actually saw the tornado i was in a chili’s cooler in Yukon, OK waiting for the storm to pass

  18. Cheryl says:

    I read this knowing ALL my family live in this tornado’s path!! Praise God all are safe, but also I know not everyone can say that! I’m sorrowed for their loss. Very thankful for storm shelters saving my family

  19. Cary says:

    Although I live in New Mexico, I was in Oklahoma during the May rash of tornadoes. It was the best drama on TV and the scariest. I hope it’s a long time before the state is subject to such horror again.

  20. I was at home when the tornado hit. I live in El Reno. I hope I never have to experience that again! I don’t live that far from uptown and if it didn’t turn I and my family might not be here. I was at home by myself and didn’t know the massive build-up of the tornado. After it was all over with and I seen pictures of it over our town for the first time in my life I was scared but awed at the same time of the power of God. It does not make me want to move away from here but I will be more weather aware next time. The hail was incredible as I had never seen it that huge before and hope never to see it again. All I can say is, Thank God for the weather/storm chasers who keep us informed but hopefully we won’t lose any more good people.

  21. Tammy W says:

    Gabe, I found this blog because a neighbor posted it on fb. I’m wondering if there is a way that you can ck the data and tell me what happened over our neighborhood. (Airport Rd at SW 15th) We actually lived on Prairie View. One wall left standing. In and out of the cellar because we got hit 3 times. The first one was HORRIBLE and LONG. The other two were not nearly as loud or as long lasting. Was the first one the main tornado? The other two…were those the sub vortices? We were so shell shocked and confused the next day. We had no idea that was even possible. Thanks!

    • Hi Tammy,

      The tornado was a high-end EF3 tornado (winds close to 170 mph) near 15th / Airport. Actually, the tornado center passed just north of that intersection. I imagine that you probably got hit with the main tornadic vortex and a couple satellite tornadoes (or subvortices). I’m glad y’all are okay!

      Gabe

  22. Anonymous says:

    Nice article Gabe 🙂 I love it.

    How about writing an article on the typhoon Yolanda which strike Philippines ?

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  29. Seth says:

    Hi gabe,
    I was wondering…. It’s reported that Carl and Paul were sucked out of the cobalt from under their seat belts. But tim was found strapped in on passenger side. Do you think it’s possible for a sub vortex with winds at 180+ to pull someone from under their seat belts? Their car was also found in reverse. I’m starting to think carl and Paul were outside the vehicle deploying probes and got hit by a sub vortex since they were found at the creek and tim was lofted almost a half a mike away from then by the full expanding tornado as it merged with the strongest sub vortex/ 3 football fields length. Either they finally saw the tornado from out of the rain and try to reverse and go back or the
    Tornado slammed thee cobalt so hard rear end 1st it shoved the transmission out of gear. Scary to think what they went threw, god bless their soles. They were great people trying to save
    Lives with their research. And dan robinson is one lucky son of a gun. 30 secs ahead of them saved his life. Thank god he made it to safety. His information and video from his vehicle will help future storm chasers be better prepared in safety and hopefully a lot more cautious in a future tornado like el reno.

  30. Pingback: 10 Amazing Facts about the El Reno Tornado! | OKCWeatherBlog.com

  31. Anonymous says:

    Please remember those who lost their lives in this tornado. It’s the strangest way to lose a loved one.

  32. Anna Eakle says:

    Fact #11: It took the largest tornado in US history to claim the heart beat a man who was bigger than life! Dustin Heath Bridges is still mourned by entire communities. He was my best friend for many years and like the brother I never had. His friends and family loved him so much. And he loved us all, and lived life so that we were all so proud of him. He was a lover of others and of life itself. A genuinely good human being. There’s not a storm that rolls through our small, Southeast Oklahoma area, that we don’t look up, and know he’s watching over us. If you didn’t know Dustin, it’s a shame. If you did, you were blessed.
    Dustin passed, not alone that night. But with his hand held by a perfect stranger. A woman who came to him, after his truck fell from the sky. A woman who never got to know the man we all adored, but refused to leave his side. He was comforted in his time of need, and loved in that moment, by someone who could’ve turned away. For that we’ll forever be grateful. She was a giver, just like Dustin. May 31st is bitter sweet. We lost his smile, but Heaven gained a big ol’ angel.
    Love and miss you, D.

  33. Kaitlyn Fielder says:

    I live here in El Reno , OK. And after all this time we are still rebuilding from the damage the tornado caused…

  34. Geneve says:

    Such a giant of a tornado that was in oklaholma. Im from Missouri but watched and read upon the 1999 and 2013 Oklaholma tornadoes and i cant even imagine the force and intensity of either. I only been in three tornadoes in my life all which were Ef0s in the past ten years and them seemed bad enough. Can anyone tell me which tornado was more violent and destructive out of the 1999/2013 Oklaholma storms?

  35. Gary says:

    Always wandered why it gets very dead calm before a tornado happens?

  36. Chris Carmichael says:

    Holy crap that was the biggest tornado I ever seen

  37. Bully Harris Jr says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what happened to Twistex I’m a big weather geek loved storm chasers and Tim samaras was an inspiration but I’ve read everything still unanswered questions. Gear was in reverse did they get stuck in the mud , just a lot . Thanks for your information.

    • A.E. says:

      I’ve also wondered if anyone mapped the other victim’s vehicles at the time they were hit. Was Dustin Bridges close to Samaras, or somewhere else? Were the others caught by the main funnel, or one of the smaller ones that leaped out?

  38. Greg says:

    And the 11th most amazing fact… I lost a great friend. RIP Billy O’Neal…..

  39. Anonymous says:

    Do you evercome to Minnesota

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