Evolution of Cloud-to-Ground Lightning and Storm Structure in the Spencer, South Dakota, Tornadic Supercell of 30 May 1998

Carey, Lawrence D.; Petersen, Walter A.; Rutledge, Steven A.
August 2003
Monthly Weather Review;Aug2003 Parts 1 and 2, Vol. 131 Issue 8, p1811
Academic Journal
On 30 May 1998, a tornado devastated the town of Spencer, South Dakota. The Spencer tornado (rated F4 on the Fujita tornado intensity scale) was the third and most intense of five tornadoes produced by a single supercell storm during an approximate 1-h period. The supercell produced over 76% positive cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning and a peak positive CG flash rate of 18 flashes min[sup -1] (5-min average) during a 2-h period surrounding the tornado damage. Earlier studies have reported anomalous positive CG lightning activity in some supercell storms producing violent tornadoes. However, what makes the CG lightning activity in this tornadic storm unique is the magnitude and timing of the positive ground flashes relative to the F4 tornado. In previous studies, supercells dominated by positive CG lightning produced their most violent tornado after they attained their maximum positive ground flash rate, whenever the rate exceeded 1.5 flashes min[sup -1] . Further, tornadogenesis often occurred during a lull in CG lightning activity and sometimes during a reversal from positive to negative polarity. Contrary to these findings, the positive CG lightning flash rate and percentage of positive CG lightning in the Spencer supercell increased dramatically while the storm was producing F4 damage on Spencer. These results have important implications for the use of CG lightning in the nowcasting of tornadoes and for the understanding of cloud electrification in these unique storms. In order to further explore these issues, the authors present detailed analyses of storm evolution and structure using Sioux Falls, South Dakota, (KFSD) Weather Surveillance Radar-1988 Doppler (WSR-88D) radar reflectivity and Doppler velocity and National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) CG lightning data. The analyses suggest that a merger between the Spencer supercell and a squall line on its rear flank may have provided the impetus for both the F4 tornadic damage and the dramatic increase in positive CG lightning during the tornado, possibly explaining the difference in timing compared to past studies.


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