May 29, 1995 was Memorial Day.
Brand new “Doppler” technology was just reaching many areas of the country. The 1988 Doppler Weather Surveillance Radar (WSR-88D) was the new radar being deployed across the nation. We still use the WSR-88D today, and even though the radars still bear the number “88,” all National Weather Service 88D’s have received substantial hardware and software upgrades since original installation. The most notable and recent upgrade, Dual Polarization, was discussed in my previous post about the SoCal wildfires earlier in May.
A major tornado hit western Massachusetts, particularly Great Barrington, shortly after the KOKX Upton, NY Doppler came online. Great Barrington is a quaint town nestled in the southern Berkshires. Every time I drive through town I think about the once-popular “Great Barrington Fair,” a now-defunct and heavily dilapidated horse racing track. The New York Times has a good article on Massachusetts horse racing, originally published way back in 2001. Anyways, long story short, horse racing was already struggling in Great Barrington long before the tornado hit. Then, on Memorial Day 1995, mother nature sucked any remaining life out of Great Barrington racing in a matter of minutes.
The National Weather Service storm survey team determined that an F4 tornado touched down at 7:06pm EST just west of the center of Great Barrington. It was on the ground for 11 miles, and had a maximum width of 300 yards (almost 2-tenths of a mile). 3 were killed and at least 24 were injured.
The animation above is from the then-newly installed radar on Long Island (more precisely, Upton, NY). No textbook “hook echo” was visible with this storm. So how did meteorologists identify a possible tornado? Before the 88D was installed, it would have been nearly impossible to the inexperienced (and maybe experienced?) eye. But the new 88D brought with it technology that allows meteorologists to analyze motion in the atmosphere in near-real-time. The next animation contains radial velocity data.
Remember that the Doppler is on Long Island. Green color indicates motion towards the radar (generally to the south) and red color indicates motion away from the radar (generally to the north). When the green is back-to-back with the red, that spells trouble – a strong indication of rotation. Remember play dough? If you can imaging rolling play dough back and forth in your palms, you’ll better understand the idea of rotation in this sense. In this case, the velocity indication was strong that low-level rotation was occurring within the thunderstorm. This kind of indication warrants tornado warnings and wall-to-wall TV coverage nowadays.
The Great Barrington Fair suffered major damage. While the damaged facilities at the race track were actually rebuilt, horse racing never returned in the form that is was during its glory days in Great Barrington (for reasons mostly unrelated to the tornado, as described in the NYT article above). Still, the tornado further impeded any forward progress in reviving the Great Barrington Fair to what it was in its heyday.
Back in late 2010, Meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan dug up and uploaded some aerial and ground footage from the aftermath. You can watch the WVIT video here.
Editor’s note: The KENX Albany, NY radar is much closer to western Massachussetts than the KOKX Upton, NY radar on Long Island, but the data from KENX is missing in the National Climatic Data Center archive that I used for this report. If KENX was in fact working at the time of the storm, forecasters would have relied on it more than any other radar. KENX provides a better idea of what is going on over Great Barrington because the beam scans at a much lower altitude than the beam from the Long Island radar.