The 1979 Windsor Locks Tornado - NBC Connecticut
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The 1979 Windsor Locks Tornado

On Ryan's Radar

NBC Connecticut First Alert meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan gives you the science behind the forecast and shares with you an in-depth look at the weather impacting Connecticut.

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The F4 tornado that hit Windsor, Windsor Locks, and Suffield on October 3, 1979 is arguably the most violent tornado in Connecticut history. The extraordinary and highly unusual circumstances that lead to the Windsor Locks tornado make the tornado not only one of the strongest but also one of most bizarre in New England history.

Upper air weather pattern on 10/3/1979. A very strong upper level disturbance was swinging through New England during the day.

A strong disturbance in the upper levels of the atmosphere raced northeast toward Connecticut on October 3, 1979. A warm front moved north from Long Island Sound which resulted in a band of extreme low level wind shear over Connecticut. 

Surface weather map close to the time of the tornado (Courtesy: Riley & Bosart, 1987)

The storm that spawned the tornado produced exceptionally heavy rainfall and isolated severe weather from Long Island north into the Hartford area. The storm moved north from New Haven when things turned violent.

Track of Convective Cloud From CHH Radar (Courtesy: Riley and Bosart, 1987)

According to Riley and Bosart (1987) the radar imagery indicates that the storm may have been a left moving supercell that became tornadic when interacting with the warm front. The observations at Bradley Airport are remarkable. A wind gust of 40 m/s or 90 mph was recorded as the tornado passed just feet from the terminal. 

Bradley Field observations as the tornado passed over the airport. A rapid pressure drop and a wind gust of 40 m/s (90 mph) were recorded.

The weather pattern that lead to this tornado is certainly not a classic setup for a northeast tornado. Riley and Bosart argued in their 1987 paper that the instability was maximized in the Connecticut River Valley with a channeled southerly flow coming up the Valley from the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound that transported warm, moist, and unstable air inland. The combination of instability, strong lift from the approaching upper level disturbance, and extreme wind shear near the warm front draped over BDL was enough to produce a short-lived, isolated, and violent tornado.

Windsor Tornado in PicturesWindsor Tornado in Pictures

The damage was extensive. Flattened subdivisions in Poquonock and flipped planes and helicopters at Bradley Airport. Ted Fujita, the world renowned tornado expert, surveyed the damage and published both the tornado path and the extreme downburst damage that occurred just east of the tornado path. 

The 1979 Windsor Locks tornado remains one of the costliest tornadoes to strike the United States (the damage in three towns amounted to an adjusted 700 million dollars). The fact this tornado occurred in October in a somewhat unusual severe weather setup (a storm moving south to north) makes the 1979 Windsor Locks tornado one of the strangest significant tornadoes in New England.

I Survived A TornadoI Survived A Tornado

Survivors of the 1979 tornado tell their stories of survival.
(Published Friday, Oct. 2, 2009)

The 11.3 mile long tornado (officially, though it appears that the tornado was actually on the ground all the way to the Mass Pike!) was 1,400 yards wide at its widest point and is likely the strongest tornado to hit Connecticut in the last 100 years.  Three died in the storm, 500 were injured, and countless others won't forget where they were when one of the state's worst storms moved through.

To read more on the meteorology of the 1979 tornado check out this Monthly Weather Review article

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