Potent Storms Turn Things Upside Down in New England: Here's the Science

Meteorologist Pete Bouchard gives us a weather lesson to explain how severe storms spawned two tornadoes on Tuesday

Wait. Tornadoes with highs in the 50s? In mid-October?

It wasn’t a textbook case for severe weather in Southern New England. But around here, these setups seldom are. As was the case in this go-round, a few potent storms turned things upside down for a few hours Tuesday afternoon and evening.

To understand what was going on, we need to go above ground level and enter the middle atmosphere, where things got hopping this afternoon.

Wind shear – or the twisting of winds with height – was impressive for ANY time of year from Rhode Island straight through Southeast Massachusetts. Coupled with a wee bit of heating from the day (relative “heating,” of course), and a developing low pressure system that was getting infused with energy right above us, the stage was set to develop thunderstorms.

By their nature, thunderstorms have areas of wind intake and outtake. If there is enough shear present, the intake air (what we commonly call the updraft) can rotate. IF (and it’s a big if) the rotation is robust and sustained, this wind can work to the ground as a tornado. We had all the above present today, and the end result was a mini outbreak of severe weather.

Notice that this worked independently of the air temperatures, which, although often big factors in the summer, can be overcome in other seasons if the right elements are present. As was the case with most of our tornadoes, they are short-lived, difficult to detect, and oftentimes, weak.

Survey teams from the National Weather Service in Norton will complete their assessment of the damage in Lincoln, Rhode Island on Wednesday.

That concludes our weather lesson for this event. We all know there will be many more in the months ahead as the cold season gets underway.

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