Photo: Lauren Long https://www.syracuse.com/news/2014/07/deadly_tornado_smithfield_new_york_weather_madison_county.html
July 8th, 2014 was a typical summer day for Central New York State; hot, humid, with a slight risk of thunderstorms in the air as a cold front was expected to cross over the region. But that typical summer day quickly turned into an event that would change the perception of severe weather events for many people and local meteorologists for years to come.
A series of severe storms were expected to occur across the Northeast that afternoon with threats for widespread damaging winds, a couple of tornadoes, and isolated cases of large hail possible. A public severe weather outlook had mentioned that severe thunderstorms were expected over parts of the north-central Appalachians that afternoon, and a slight risk issued by the NOAA SPC in previous outlooks was later upgraded to a moderate risk that included much of central and western NY, as well as the Southern Tier. Below is one of the SPC mesoscale discussions issued for that day:
All the ingredients for severe weather and tornado development were present, and several meteorologists were aware of but caught off guard by the turn of events that would later unfold.
Credit: NOAA SPC
Base reflectivity from 13Z 20140708 to 05Z 20140709
Nearly five years ago this July, as the line of storms made its way across the region, an EF-2 tornado with winds up to 135 mph touched down at around 7:02 PM EDT in Smithfield, Madison county NY. This tornado killed four residents of the community, destroyed several homes and property, and is known to this day as one of the deadliest tornadoes ever to occur in New York State.
Several severe thunderstorm warnings were issued throughout the area. Madison county was included in the warning as the storms swept through. Neighboring counties had tornado warnings issued for storms showing signs of radar indicated rotation. This tornadic event however was unusual in the fact that it “spun-up” from the ground up and was not formed in the usual way out of a strong, rotating thunderstorm called a supercell. While several forecasters were already occupied on a separate tornado warned storm approaching Onondaga county, the storm over in Madison county that was merely severe thunderstorm warned dropped the unexpected and deadly tornado over Smithfield where it disappeared before anyone could be warned about it.
This tornado was hard for meteorologists to see, because it had occurred along the Smithfield ridge sitting at 1400 feet high where the National Weather Service radar took approximately five minutes to make a complete scan of the area. With the radar beam at the Binghamton airport sitting at an angle of 0.5 degrees and scanning several thousands of feet into the air, this made anything occurring below the height of the ridge difficult to see if at all, and when the tornado finally showed up on radar it was already happening, and within minutes it was too late. This line of storms produced five tornadoes total in New York State all in one day; four in central NY and one in Warren county.
Below is an image from the SVRGIS page from the NOAA SPC United States severe report database:
This graphic represents the tornado paths recorded from 1950 to 2017 in the U.S.
What many people often forget is that the typical areas that get the most frequent cases of tornadic events are not the ONLY places that get can and do get tornadoes that can cause loss of property and life. When tornadoes happen in the Northeast their lifespan is often shorter, and blocked by trees and other topographic barriers making it more difficult to seek shelter from. However, it’s important to recognize this event not only as an anomaly but as a tragic event that should remind everyone to take every warning and watch seriously no matter where they are and what they’re doing. More awareness needs to be made that tornadoes can and DO happen outside of typical areas like tornado alley in the great plains. A quote by New York State governor Andrew Cuomo strikes the feeling of this reality all too well as he once stated, “We don’t get tornadoes in New York, right? Anyone will tell you that. Well, we do now.”
Forecasting for rare events like these remains a difficult issue for meteorologists to this day, and goes to show how the strength and speed of nature’s greatest forces can overwhelm our best efforts of prediction even in places outside of Tornado Alley.
To learn more about other past, historical weather events, click here!
@2019 Weather Forecaster Christine Gregory