The twister that prompted a tornado emergency alert for Wichita before it lifted just southwest of the city Sunday afternoon has been upgraded to an EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
A Doppler on Wheels measured wind speeds of as much as 135 miles per hour in the tornado near the surface, said Suzanne Fortin, the meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.
The tornado touched down at about 3:30 p.m. five miles north of Clearwater, then traveled northeast for more than four miles before lifting about two miles southwest of Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The tornado’s track would have taken it right into downtown Wichita had it stayed on the ground.
The Doppler on Wheels actually measured winds of 138 mph 50 feet off the ground at the center of the vortex, Fortin said. That would be strong enough to earn an EF-3 rating. But those ratings are based on wind speeds at the surface, and friction from falling precipitation and other objects slows winds closer to the ground.
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“Fortunately, the center track mainly was across open field and pasture land,” Fortin said in an e-mail response to questions.
The EF-2 southwest of Wichita was the strongest of 10 tornadoes that touched down in south-central Kansas on Sunday.
A tornado that touched down near Udall was rated an EF-1, said Chance Hayes, a warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service. The rest were weak EF-0s.
Storms on Saturday night helped Wichita on Sunday, Fortin said. They scoured enough instability from the atmosphere to keep tornadoes that formed in the metropolitan area from staying on the ground for long.
Simply put, she said, there was not enough warm, moist air nor spin in the low levels of the atmosphere to produce strong, long-track tornadoes near Wichita.
Greater instability in the atmosphere in Oklahoma set the stage for stronger, long-track tornadoes Sunday, including one that killed two people in Shawnee.