View of tornadic thunderstorm Sunday over the Texas Panhandle from GOES 16 satellite. (NOAA Satellites)

What does a tornadic thunderstorm look like from space? The GOES-16 satellite captured a stunning view of a Texas supercell Sunday evening as it dropped a photogenic twister amid a busy day for severe weather in the Plains.

The twister struck just east of Tahoka, a community of 2,600 about 20 minutes south of Lubbock. It quickly grew into a large tornado, with the National Weather Service warning, “This tornado is wrapped in dust and rain and may be difficult to see.” The warning was labeled PDS — a rare “particularly dangerous situation."

No injuries were reported, but the storm damaged power lines and barns and tore the roof off a home, according to EverythingLubbock.com. The tornado was one of 23 reported to the National Weather Service between Texas and Nebraska on Sunday.

Video shot by storm chasers shows the tornado dancing elegantly and ominously as it becomes enshrouded in rain, hail and dust. The dust acts as a tracer showing the pattern of the winds near the surface as they feed into the vortex from all angles. It’s a remarkable scene — but 22,236 miles above the surface, the view was equally impressive.

The GOES-16 satellite tracks cloud-top temperatures, a good indicator of just how high is a cloud. As the cap (a stable air layer that prevents early storm formation) erodes and storms explode, towers can be seen billowing upward like steam penned up beneath a lid in a pot of boiling water.

To better understand this feature on satellite, imagine holding a flaming lighter a few inches beneath a giant piece of white paper. The spot of paper just above the lighter would quickly become discolored and eventually burn. Then imagine moving the paper, as though it’s being blown by jet steam winds. Now instead of a burn, there’s a dark stripe marking all the places torched by this heat source. That’s kind of how an intense anvil can stretch so far downstream of a very localized heat source.

It’s important to note that the towering anvil cloud is not a hot plume, rather, a thick cloud of frozen particles (ice crystals and snow flakes).

Remnants of the storm’s anvil are carried hundreds of miles downwind, over long distances by the strong jet stream winds. Meanwhile, a constant plume of upward motion farther west sustains the behemoth storm, its updraft plume marked by a bubble of red colors. That’s the “overshooting top” — the product of an updraft so strong the storm punctures the tropopause — ordinarily an effective “ceiling” or stable layer for weather systems. But when a pocket of air rises with enough momentum, it struggles to put the brakes on even when it shouldn’t be able to rise. That’s a surefire sign of a vicious storm.

As a result, the cloud tops are extremely cold since they reach so high. Some may appear a bit warmer because of contact with the stratosphere — a region about 10-12 miles above the ground where temperature climbs with height.


A 3-D radar view of tornadic thunderstorm Sunday over Tahoka, Tex. (GR-2, adapted by Matthew Cappucci)

At the same time, ripples can be seen propagating throughout the anvil. These are little waves in the upper atmosphere caused by disturbances originating from the turbulence around the overshooting top. It would be like diving to the bottom of a pool and then blowing a really big bubble. When that pocket rises (less dense) and then hits the top, concentric wavelets would ripple outward from the center.

Ground-based radars offered an equally remarkable perspective, peering into the storm and noting a rain-free void where the updraft was so intense that precipitation was unable to fall. Dust along a boundary wrapping into the tornadic circulation can be seen, as well.


Close-up 3-D view of tornadic thunderstorm Sunday in Tahoka, Tex. (GR-2, adapted by Matthew Cappucci)

They’re images that combine natural beauty with raw destructive power, and similar scenes may unfold on the Plains in the days ahead. Following scattered afternoon storms Monday, a more significant severe weather event could play out Tuesday and Wednesday.