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07/31/2003

Only a Microburst

Last week, I said a mini tornado had swept through our area on
Tuesday, July 22. That wasn’t a good day right from the start. It
began with a report from my dermatologist’s office that a biopsy
on a lesion on my leg indicated a squamous cell carcinoma and
that a surgeon should remove the remainder of the lesion. Acting
promptly, I got an appointment that afternoon with a surgeon,
thinking he would do the job in his office. My wife dropped me
off for the appointment on her way to pick up our grandson from
a day camp at a school a couple blocks from our house. The sun
was shining when she dropped me off.

It turned out that the surgeon said I would have to schedule the
surgery to be done as an outpatient in our local hospital so I was
out of his office in ten minutes. The sky was darkening and,
when my wife pulled up to take me home, it was raining. In a
couple minutes, a severe thunderstorm was in progress and I saw
the mother of all lightning bolts, possibly the one that set a
nearby utility pole on fire. We were just pulling into our garage
when hail the size of “small ice cubes” (quoting a local paper)
pelted us. As we entered the house, the power went out, the hail
was swirling like a tornado and we promptly went to the
basement with our grandson.

In a minute or so, it was over and we came upstairs to see our
back yard covered with fallen branches and two very large limbs
down in our neighbors’ yard. Looking out the front, we found a
major limb in our front yard, another large limb on our driveway
and yet another on the street. Had we arrived home a couple
minutes later, we could have been killed or injured by any of the
three limbs hitting our car! The area around us, probably an area
about a half to three quarters of a mile square, was full of large
fallen trees, some on houses and cars. Not wanting to open our
refrigerator without any power that evening, we went out to find
a bite to eat and found another patch of a neighboring town in
similar circumstances.

We ended up the next evening at Brian Trumbore’s condo to use
his George Foreman grill to cook some frozen steaks that were
thoroughly unfrozen by that time. When we opened our
refrigerator, I was impressed by the technology that must go into
the manufacture of packaged ice cream. Even though melted, the
ice cream in each of four containers of a couple different brands
had maintained its shape and volume. The ice cream makers
must know just how much air and gel-like material to add to the
ice cream to achieve that effect. It was 39 hours before our
power was restored the next morning.

We were convinced that we had experienced a tornado,
especially after hearing on our battery powered radios that a
widespread area of New Jersey had experienced even worse
damage. In fact, our town’s damage did not even merit mention
in our daily newspaper, The Star Ledger. However, an article in
the July 24 Ledger by Peter Spencer and Maryann Spoto titled
“The Weather Goes Haywire” attributed the extensive
destruction not to tornadoes but to “microbursts” and
“macrobursts”. The National Weather Service says that these
bursts are straight lines of fierce low-lying wind that can be just
as devastating as tornadoes. A macroburst differs from a
microburst in the extent of the destruction; a macroburst’s
destruction extends more than two and a half miles. By that
definition, we had experienced a mere microburst but the damage
was far from micro, in my opinion.

It was interesting to me that these micro- and macrobursts didn’t
follow any definite path. Whereas our microburst struck at about
4 PM, a macroburst struck an area only 10-20 miles west of us
some five to six hours later that night. There were roofs blown
off and at least one report of a car being lifted and moved some
15 feet. In the intervening period a Jersey shore community well
to our southeast was hit by a severe microburst.

I imagine that readers in some parts of the country, where real
tornadoes are common, may be thinking that you guys in Jersey
don’t know what devastation is. You’re right, of course.
However, I decided to do some more research on these bursts
and visits to the Web sites of the National Weather Service,
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and
University of Nebraska Lincoln confirmed that these bursts can
be quite deadly under the right circumstances.

What causes a microburst, which is sometimes called a
downburst? And what is “virga”? Virga is simply rain that
evaporates before reaching the ground. This doesn’t sound
particularly threatening but the evaporation of the rain cools the
air. Heavy rain can also cool the air. Cooler air is heavier and
falls, creating a downdraft. In a thunderstorm, under the right
conditions, this downdraft can be quite strong. Heavy hail
falling through the downdraft can also push the wind in the
downdraft to high velocities. When the column of wind in what
is now a downburst hits the ground, it spreads out horizontally in
all directions. As it spreads out there may be areas where the
wind curls up in vortexes that can be a couple thousand feet high.

These horizontal winds can be quite damaging. And microbursts
can be embedded in a macroburst, as was the case in Florida on
July 20, 2000. The macroburst was unusually wide, 5 miles, and
contained winds of 50-60 miles an hour. These winds weren’t
particularly damaging but the embedded microbursts had winds
clocked at 100 and 125 mph that caused extensive damage.

Undetected microbursts can be a real problem if you’re flying.
In retrospect, I think we encountered a couple of them on a flight
from Florida to Newark some years ago. Within a period of five
minutes we had two precipitous, heart-stopping drops of I would
guess a couple hundred feet. Downbursts? I can’t imagine the
feeling passengers must have in those rare drops of several
thousand feet. Scary as those are, a microburst can be a
potentially more serious problem when a plane is landing or
taking off, and its speed is relatively slow.

Let’s say you’re the pilot on a glide path to the runway and you
encounter a microburst. You will find that the aircraft will rise
as it runs into the headwind from the burst. But this means you
might miss the runway so you cut the power to bring the plane
back down to its proper glide path. However, by this time
you’ve passed through the microburst to the other side and the
headwind becomes a tailwind, which pushes the plane down. If
you’re already close to the ground, you may be in serious
trouble! In view of the admirable safety record of commercial
airlines, I’m assuming that our airports have suitable radar
facilities to detect microbursts and that pilots are trained to
handle such situations.

As for our own microburst, it’s eight days later and the sounds of
chain saws and tree shredders still abound. In fact, our city’s tree
people are at this very moment taking down our neighbor’s very
large tree that was damaged by the storm. Our town is known
for its many large trees but, at this point, life in a treeless condo
development seems rather appealing!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-07/31/2003-      
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Dr. Bortrum

07/31/2003

Only a Microburst

Last week, I said a mini tornado had swept through our area on
Tuesday, July 22. That wasn’t a good day right from the start. It
began with a report from my dermatologist’s office that a biopsy
on a lesion on my leg indicated a squamous cell carcinoma and
that a surgeon should remove the remainder of the lesion. Acting
promptly, I got an appointment that afternoon with a surgeon,
thinking he would do the job in his office. My wife dropped me
off for the appointment on her way to pick up our grandson from
a day camp at a school a couple blocks from our house. The sun
was shining when she dropped me off.

It turned out that the surgeon said I would have to schedule the
surgery to be done as an outpatient in our local hospital so I was
out of his office in ten minutes. The sky was darkening and,
when my wife pulled up to take me home, it was raining. In a
couple minutes, a severe thunderstorm was in progress and I saw
the mother of all lightning bolts, possibly the one that set a
nearby utility pole on fire. We were just pulling into our garage
when hail the size of “small ice cubes” (quoting a local paper)
pelted us. As we entered the house, the power went out, the hail
was swirling like a tornado and we promptly went to the
basement with our grandson.

In a minute or so, it was over and we came upstairs to see our
back yard covered with fallen branches and two very large limbs
down in our neighbors’ yard. Looking out the front, we found a
major limb in our front yard, another large limb on our driveway
and yet another on the street. Had we arrived home a couple
minutes later, we could have been killed or injured by any of the
three limbs hitting our car! The area around us, probably an area
about a half to three quarters of a mile square, was full of large
fallen trees, some on houses and cars. Not wanting to open our
refrigerator without any power that evening, we went out to find
a bite to eat and found another patch of a neighboring town in
similar circumstances.

We ended up the next evening at Brian Trumbore’s condo to use
his George Foreman grill to cook some frozen steaks that were
thoroughly unfrozen by that time. When we opened our
refrigerator, I was impressed by the technology that must go into
the manufacture of packaged ice cream. Even though melted, the
ice cream in each of four containers of a couple different brands
had maintained its shape and volume. The ice cream makers
must know just how much air and gel-like material to add to the
ice cream to achieve that effect. It was 39 hours before our
power was restored the next morning.

We were convinced that we had experienced a tornado,
especially after hearing on our battery powered radios that a
widespread area of New Jersey had experienced even worse
damage. In fact, our town’s damage did not even merit mention
in our daily newspaper, The Star Ledger. However, an article in
the July 24 Ledger by Peter Spencer and Maryann Spoto titled
“The Weather Goes Haywire” attributed the extensive
destruction not to tornadoes but to “microbursts” and
“macrobursts”. The National Weather Service says that these
bursts are straight lines of fierce low-lying wind that can be just
as devastating as tornadoes. A macroburst differs from a
microburst in the extent of the destruction; a macroburst’s
destruction extends more than two and a half miles. By that
definition, we had experienced a mere microburst but the damage
was far from micro, in my opinion.

It was interesting to me that these micro- and macrobursts didn’t
follow any definite path. Whereas our microburst struck at about
4 PM, a macroburst struck an area only 10-20 miles west of us
some five to six hours later that night. There were roofs blown
off and at least one report of a car being lifted and moved some
15 feet. In the intervening period a Jersey shore community well
to our southeast was hit by a severe microburst.

I imagine that readers in some parts of the country, where real
tornadoes are common, may be thinking that you guys in Jersey
don’t know what devastation is. You’re right, of course.
However, I decided to do some more research on these bursts
and visits to the Web sites of the National Weather Service,
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and
University of Nebraska Lincoln confirmed that these bursts can
be quite deadly under the right circumstances.

What causes a microburst, which is sometimes called a
downburst? And what is “virga”? Virga is simply rain that
evaporates before reaching the ground. This doesn’t sound
particularly threatening but the evaporation of the rain cools the
air. Heavy rain can also cool the air. Cooler air is heavier and
falls, creating a downdraft. In a thunderstorm, under the right
conditions, this downdraft can be quite strong. Heavy hail
falling through the downdraft can also push the wind in the
downdraft to high velocities. When the column of wind in what
is now a downburst hits the ground, it spreads out horizontally in
all directions. As it spreads out there may be areas where the
wind curls up in vortexes that can be a couple thousand feet high.

These horizontal winds can be quite damaging. And microbursts
can be embedded in a macroburst, as was the case in Florida on
July 20, 2000. The macroburst was unusually wide, 5 miles, and
contained winds of 50-60 miles an hour. These winds weren’t
particularly damaging but the embedded microbursts had winds
clocked at 100 and 125 mph that caused extensive damage.

Undetected microbursts can be a real problem if you’re flying.
In retrospect, I think we encountered a couple of them on a flight
from Florida to Newark some years ago. Within a period of five
minutes we had two precipitous, heart-stopping drops of I would
guess a couple hundred feet. Downbursts? I can’t imagine the
feeling passengers must have in those rare drops of several
thousand feet. Scary as those are, a microburst can be a
potentially more serious problem when a plane is landing or
taking off, and its speed is relatively slow.

Let’s say you’re the pilot on a glide path to the runway and you
encounter a microburst. You will find that the aircraft will rise
as it runs into the headwind from the burst. But this means you
might miss the runway so you cut the power to bring the plane
back down to its proper glide path. However, by this time
you’ve passed through the microburst to the other side and the
headwind becomes a tailwind, which pushes the plane down. If
you’re already close to the ground, you may be in serious
trouble! In view of the admirable safety record of commercial
airlines, I’m assuming that our airports have suitable radar
facilities to detect microbursts and that pilots are trained to
handle such situations.

As for our own microburst, it’s eight days later and the sounds of
chain saws and tree shredders still abound. In fact, our city’s tree
people are at this very moment taking down our neighbor’s very
large tree that was damaged by the storm. Our town is known
for its many large trees but, at this point, life in a treeless condo
development seems rather appealing!

Allen F. Bortrum