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Space tornadoes: The perspective you need to see

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 3:04 PM - Sunday's devastating tornado outbreak in the southern United States was certainly dramatic when seen from the ground, as the footage from stormchasers and news agencies alike revealed the power of these storms and the deadly twisters they spawned.

No less dramatic, though, was the view from space. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-East satellite picked up the above image at just after 9 a.m. Monday morning, which shows the ragged line of storms being pushed along by the cold front. The video below shows a continuous time-lapse of the satellite’s views between 8:15 p.m. EDT on Sunday to 10:10 a.m. EDT Monday.

Although it’s hard to tell from the vast cloud-tops obscuring the view, the worst of these tornadoes, apparently now confirmed as category EF3 or possibly higher, started off at around 20 seconds into the video, or 7:25 p.m. Central Time on Sunday evening. Touching down just west of Ferndale, Ark., the twister travelled to the northeast, passing north of Little Rock, and through Mayflower and Vilonia, by just after 8 p.m. CT, or just four frames of the video later. There, it reportedly caused the worst damage, apparently wiping some houses in the Vilonia area clean from their foundations, and killing at least 16 people in the area. Continuing on, the twister swept just north of El Paso, Ark., where it’s thought to have lifted off the ground more than once before diminishing near Swifton. In total, the tornado appears to have been on the ground for a distance of around 80 miles (130 kilometers), and reports put it at almost half a mile (3/4 of a kilometer) wide at times.

This tornado was only one of at least a dozen confirmed twisters in the area on Sunday night. Five others that ranked as category EF2 or higher hit the region on Sunday night and Monday afternoon, including one that caused extensive damage in and around Tupelo, Miss.

One thing to note about the video is that it runs continuously, from Sunday night into Monday morning, even though it looks like daytime from beginning to end. This is because the underlying image is not a true real-time shot of the ground. The cloud images taken by the GOES satellite, in both visible and infrared, are overlaid onto a static image of the ground for consistency.

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