WJTV News Channel 12 - Night of Terror: 1984 Tornado Outbreak Relived, A Science Perspe

Night of Terror: 1984 Tornado Outbreak Relived, A Science Perspective

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - Though it was 30 years ago, the 1984 Carolina Tornado Outbreak still has a place in history as the deadliest, with 57 killed across South and North Carolina with nearly 1250 people injured.

From the scientific standpoint, this was an interesting outbreak due to the configuration of the jet stream being very far south and very strong; an area of low pressure moves into West Virginia and virtually stalled out. As that happened, the upper air energy 'phased' or came together with the surface features, which slows them down and causes them to rapidly intensify. That parent low pressure system spawned a second low, called a mesoscale low in Eastern Alabama by late morning.

A boundary had formed with the division of warm air and cold air, providing a track for the low to take northward. Temperatures surged in Eastern North Carolina into the upper 70s, while temperatures in the Piedmont were held in the 40s and 50s.

Why is that?

A phenomenon all too common in Eastern Carolina this winter; the cold air damming effect thanks to an area of high pressure that was anchored over the Northeast.

During the course of the afternoon, the mesoscale low tracked northeastward along the boundary, intensifying to almost having central pressure as deep as Hurricane Irene when it made landfall. The Severe Local Storms Center upgraded the areas to a 'high risk' for severe weather; this has only been done twice in North Carolina; March 28th, 1984 and April 16th, 2011.

The storms began to develop and race towards the northeast; virtually one storm produced a family of long-lived, long-tracked violent tornadoes with 12 of them producing F3 or F4 damage, which almost leveled several towns including Red Spring in Robeson County, Mount Olive, Simpson and Lewiston.

That day the warnings were hard to come by, the tornado watch was issued around 2:15 in the afternoon but due to a communications error with the National Weather Service, warnings were not able to be issued. Many were caught off guard that evening. Many things came from that outbreak, we now have several redundancies to avoid that from happening. Radar was very primitive as well, using old World War II military radar.


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