The tornado in New Plymouth early on the morning of Sunday 19 June 2011, like every tornado that passes through an area where people observe it, was certainly dramatic.
Like many tornadoes that affect Taranaki, this tornado formed out to sea – not very far to the northwest of New Plymouth – in a line of thundery showers.
At 4:15am, a mesocyclone (to be explained later in this blog) is identifiable over New Plymouth in imagery from the New Plymouth radar. Radar imagery 7.5 minutes earlier, at around 4:07am, hints vaguely at the mesocyclone’s existence but is far from conclusive. Radar imagery at around 4:22am suggests the mesocyclone either has decayed or is rapidly decaying. In other words, conditions supporting the development of a tornado in the New Plymouth area were favourable only for a very short time.
Severe Weather Forecaster John Crouch has extracted radar data from the bottom few “sweeps” of the radar beam. The mesocyclone was sufficiently close to the New Plymouth radar for these sweeps to provide a reaonable view of it. Here they are below, animated. Each time step is 33 seconds; the first sweep is at about 100 metres above the ground near downtown New Plymouth, while the last is about 1000 metres above the ground. So, we’re looking at successively higher layers of the mesocyclone as time goes forward; the reflectivity pattern can be seen wrapping around the circulation associated with the mesocyclone.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean it’s possible to produce 33-second radar imagery routinely, or in “operational time”. It’s only when phenomena very close to the radar are moving and evolving sufficiently rapidly that data from subsequent sweeps of the radar beam might be coherent enough for animations of them to be meaningful.
Note, in the above animation, how quickly the hook-shaped pattern moves and changes. It suggests strongly that the whole tornado event was over in a couple of minutes, which appears to be consistent with reports in the media. In the animation, there’s evidence of only one hook-shaped pattern in the New Plymouth area: it may be that there was only one tornado, and it wasn’t always reaching down to the surface along its path.
Warm seas to the northwest of New Plymouth provided some of the “fuel” for the thundery showers which passed across Taranaki in the early hours of the morning of Sunday 19 June 2011. This is very likely why the tornado was short-lived: when the mesocyclone came ashore, its fuel supply was cut off.
A little bit about mesocyclones
In brief, a mesocyclone is a local rotation and ascent of air about a vertical axis.
Hook-shaped patterns in radar reflectivity imagery are not uncommon – but are nothing like conclusive evidence of the presence of tornadoes. There also needs to be strong, coincident, rotation: this is one of the reasons why weather radars measure the inbound / outbound speed of the echo using the Doppler Effect.
In the case of the tornado in New Plymouth early on the morning of Sunday 19 June 2011, there was a strong velocity couplet observable at 4:15am, but not either side of this time.
For more on tornadoes in New Zealand, see the blog about the Albany tornado of Tuesday 3 May 2011.