Our tornado research began while developing the Significant Tornado Climatology for Lower Michigan, in which all F3 or stronger tornado events occurring across north central, central and southern Lower Michigan between 1965 and 1991 were analyzed. This research resulted in our discovery of three distinct pattern types that produce F3 and stronger tornado events over our area. The May 13, 1980 Kalamazoo tornado was classified as a “Type One” tornado event. The largest, deadliest significant tornado outbreaks across our area are “Type One” events which are characterized by strong surface low pressure, an unusually strong 250 millibar jet of 130 knots or stronger, and relative low instability, high shear environments. “Type One” events also feature a warm front either right across or just south of Lower Michigan at 1200 UTC the day of the tornado event. This front typically remains nearly stationary or lifts slowly north across southern Lower Michigan through the day of the event. Another aspect of “Type One” events is that they occur during the months of March through May.
We wanted to investigate the May 13, 1980 Kalamazoo case in even greater detail, largely because it is the last significant tornado to cause several fatalities and many injuries in the Grand Rapids, Michigan (GRR) National Weather Service (NWS) county warning area. To analyze this case, we collected surface and upper air data from the National Meteorological Center (NMC) historical data sets and ordered high resolution (hourly) surface data. This data was analyzed to identify significant upper air and surface features that were critical to the tornado outbreak on May 13, 1980. In addition, soundings and hodographs from upper air sites across the Great Lakes region including Flint, Michigan and Peoria, Illinois were analyzed as part of this review. The Flint and Peoria upper air soundings were modified based on observed surface temperature and dew point values at the Kalamazoo airport just before the tornado struck. These modified soundings were utilized to calculate a variety of instability and shear parameters that would be more representative of the actual storm environment.
This case study incorporates some of the most recent tornado research and findings from the Storm Prediction Center, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and excerpts from 2002 tornado warning guidance from the Warning Decision Training Branch of the NWS. We were able to find several web sites dedicated to the Kalamazoo tornado. We also used data collected from the Kalamazoo Public Library and Kalamazoo Gazette extensively, which includes personal accounts of this tragedy, and damage reports.