Role of Central American biomass burning smoke in increasing tornado severity in the US

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Tuesday, 4 February 2014: 9:15 AM
Room C207 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Pablo E. Saide, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA; and S. Spak, B. Pierce, J. Otkin, R. M. Rabin, T. Schaack, A. Heidinger, A. Da Silva, M. Kacenelenbogen, J. Redemann, and G. Carmichael

Violent tornadoes in the Southeast and Central US during spring are often accompanied by smoke from biomass burning in Central America. We analyzed the effect of smoke on a historic severe weather outbreak that occurred 27 April 2011 using a coupled aerosol, chemistry and weather model (WRF-Chem) and a suite of satellite and ground-based observations. Smoke from Central American biomass burning was present in the boundary layer and lower free troposphere before and during the storm outbreak. Simulations show that adding smoke to the environment already conducive to severe thunderstorm development increases the likelihood of significant tornado occurrence, which is assessed by analyzing effects of smoke on meteorological conditions (tornado parameters) used by prediction centers to forecast tornado occurrence and severity. Smoke effects generate slightly lower rain rates and cloud top heights, indicating no evidence of storm invigoration for these storms and instead pointing towards convection inhibition. Further analysis shows that there are two mechanisms responsible for the parameter intensification: First, through indirect effects, stratiform clouds present during and before the outbreak became optically thicker, which reduced the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground and produced more stable conditions and higher low-level shear in the mixed layer. Second, through semi-direct effects, soot contained in the smoke heated the aerosol layer stabilizing the atmosphere and enhancing cloud cover below the aerosol layer, producing a more stable boundary layer and conditions leading to higher probability of violent tornadoes. The inclusion of aerosol-cloud-radiation interactions in weather forecasts may help improve the predictability of these extreme events, which can improve the timeliness and accuracy of severe weather alerts within future operational forecast systems. Figure attached: Left panel: Back trajectories from the beginning of violent tornado tracks, with circles marking 24 hours, observed AOD over ocean on 27 April and fire locations for the day before. Right panels: Maps of mean differences between simulations with and without fire emissions for the Significant Tornado Parameter (STP) and 0-1 km layer wind shear during the period of the outbreak.