Cold air funnels vs. tornadoes

June 29, 2015: The conditions in the atmosphere this afternoon brought some interesting weather to the Stateline. We saw funnel clouds of a few types around our area. To help with any curiosity or confusion over what we saw today, here’s the difference between cold air funnel clouds and tornadic funnel clouds (basically, two very different set of conditions in the atmosphere):

First off, what does a cold air funnel look like?  A few viewers provided snapshots of some of the cold air funnels in our area today.

Viewer photos of cold air funnels this afternoon. Click on image to enlarge.


Notice a couple things about the funnel clouds.  First off, see how high they are in the sky? And how small and puny they look?  These are some of the distinguishing characteristics of a cold air funnel cloud.  They are “high-based”, as we meteorologists like to call them, or that they form pretty far off the ground and high up in the storm or clouds.  Two, they look like a much bigger problem, but only get to be about that size, and remain small, weak-looking, and are slowly rotating. Cold air funnel clouds rarely reach the ground, and if they do, there is minimal to no damage. They only appear threatening, but are basically harmless.

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

How do they form? There has to be a shallow layer of cold air, BEHIND a cold front (this is a key difference from tornadoes, in that tornado-producing storms usually form along or AHEAD of a front).  There also has to be a little wind shear, or winds changing direction as you go up away from the ground. As the air from the surface rises, it spins a little in the weak shear, and if that air makes it to the cloud and fully condenses, you see a little, weak rotating cloud under the storm.

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

This is different from a tornado, in that a tornado needs much stronger wind shear, as well as plenty of warm, moist air to raise the instability in the atmosphere.  Unstable air can rise very quickly, getting the base of the storm to be lower.  This allows a much stronger rotation to be close to the surface, causing damage winds.

In summary, a cold air funnel forms much higher in the sky, is weakly rotating, and doesn’t pose much of a threat. A rotating funnel cloud spinning much faster and is much closer to the ground is most likely going to result in a tornado.

Tornado Warning for Lee County this evening. The conditions were much different in Lee Co. compared to elsewhere, so this type of rotation was threatening. Click on image to enlarge.

Tornado Warning for Lee County this evening. The conditions were much different in Lee Co. compared to elsewhere, so this type of rotation was threatening. Click on image to enlarge.

We saw both of these conditions today- the air near Rockford was cooler and weakly sheared, while the air in Lee Co. where we had a tornado warning for a while was much more humid, a little warmer, and had better shear.

So, how do you know the difference, and what should you do if you see a funnel cloud? Treat all funnel clouds with respect, and keep plenty of distance between you and them. The best advice is if you see a ROTATING (sometimes clouds hang low off of the storm, look like a funnel, but are harmless because they don’t rotate) storm cloud, check in with us online, on Facebook or Twitter, on-air, etc. and etc., or check to see if you weather radio is going off, your phone has an emergency alert on it, etc. We or the National Weather Service will let you know if that funnel cloud poses a threat or not. And remember, conditions can change in a hurry, or vary from location to location. Earlier in the day, the cold air funnels to the north did not pose a threat, but later in the afternoon there was a different set of conditions that sparked a potential tornado in Lee Co.  When in doubt, play it safe, get inside, and check in with us.



Posted under safety, science, severe weather, tornado, weather

This post was written by Alex Kirchner on June 29, 2015

Project: Tornado 2015 Wrap-up

May 21, 2015: Project: Tornado has wrapped up for another year, as we visited our last school today. While this year’s round of presentations is over, our message about severe weather preparedness isn’t!  We’ll get to that in one second.

First, a special thanks goes out to all of the teachers, principals, and administrators that invited us to visit your school and students!  We had a great time talking to all of the eager and enthusiastic children in the Stateline we got to meet within the last 4 weeks.

project tornado

Overall, 4,176 students were taught about severe weather safety and tornadoes. Each student went home with a Project: Tornado book, so our hope is that for each student that reads and shares that book with their loved one, we reach many more thousands of people about the importance of weather awareness and safety.

Severe weather season is not over yet, so make sure you are always taking the proper steps to be aware and safe during severe weather, even though we haven’t had any since the April 9 tornado outbreak. This is the same message we shared with all of the students:

– have multiple ways to get weather alerts, such as the TV, radio, text message alerts, a weather app, and a weather radio.  You can sign up for text alerts at, download our 13 Weather Authority app for free for your smartphone, and we will hold several more weather radio events to program a radio for you.

– know where to go and what to do when severe weather strikes.  If you hear thunder, go indoors immediately. In the event of a severe thunderstorm, get inside and stay away from the windows. Know where to go in your house, work place, etc. if a tornado threatens.  You may only have minutes to act, so have a plan in place now.

– be weather aware: stay in-tune with the weather forecast, know when severe weather may threaten, and plan accordingly. If you see rapidly changing weather, it would be best to head indoors and check with 13 WREX for updates.

Thanks again to all of the schools we visited this year!  Look for sign-up for next year’s Project: Tornado sometime in March 2016.

– Alex


Posted under event, Project: Tornado, safety, science, severe weather, tornado, weather

This post was written by Alex Kirchner on May 21, 2015

Project: Tornado…The Final Days

The end is near, but the reason has only just begun!
Severe weather season is in full swing, and the 13 Weather Authority has been making sure Stateline students know how to handle it by continuing Project: Tornado.

Within the last three weeks, we have traveled to 19 schools across Northern Illinois educating elementary students on how thunderstorms form and how to stay safe during a tornado. As of today, roughly 2,651 students are prepared for severe weather, and we’re still not done!
Next week, we finish off our final week of Project: Tornado, as we head to Spring Creek Elementary, Rolling Green, Barbour Language Academy, Swan Hillman and St. Mary’s School to educate another 1,200 students. This means almost 4,000 Stateline students will know exactly what to do when severe weather strikes.

Each student receives a Project: Tornado booklet, filled with pictures, games, and important information to help them understand thunderstorm processes, tornadoes, safety, and local historic tornadoes.
Here’s a sneak peek:




























‘Severe weather ready’ students are from Conklin Elementary, Perry Elementary, Pecatonica Elementary, Keith Country Day, Jefferson Elementary, Immanuel Lutheran School, Ellis Arts Academy, Lincoln-Douglas Elementary, Rockford Lutheran Academy, Thurgood Marshall School, Ralston Elementary, C. Henry Bloom, Holy Family Catholic School, West View Elementary, Shirland School, Highland Grade School, Loves Park Elementary, Lewis Lemon Elementary, and Nashold Elementary.



Posted under event, Exactrack|HD, history, Project: Tornado, safety, science, severe weather, tornado, weather, weather geek, Wind

This post was written by Morgan Kolkmeyer on May 15, 2015

A Look Back 48 Years Ago and 11 Days Ago

We are 11 days removed from the EF-4 tornado that ripped through north central Illinois, beginning in Franklin Grove, stretching 43.5 miles through Flagg and into Fairdale. While locals and non-locals are pitching in on the effort of recovery for residents affected by 7 tornadoes on April 9th 2015, many are also remembering the devastation from a tornado that struck the Stateline nearly 48 years ago.

On April 21st, 1967 the city of Belvidere experienced a deadly tornado, with eerily similar damage to the EF-4 tornado on April 9th 2015, but this one was twelve times as deadly.

Let’s flash back to meteorology in the 1900’s. Right after World War 11, the weather community started the use of radars, which were around for about 30 years by the time the Belvidere Tornado occured.
4-9 radar imageIn 1948, less than 20 years before the 1967 tornado, Robert C. Miller and E. J. Fawbush correctly predicted the first tornado in Oklahoma.  10-15 years before the Belvidere Tornado, computers ran their first models of the atmosphere. Just 5 years before the deadly tornado hit Boone County, Keith Browning and Frank Ludlam published a detailed study of a supercell storm, the first one of it’s kind. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years after the Belvidere tornado that Dr. Tetsuya Theodore Fujita invented the “Fujita Scale.”

Are you catching my drift here? While the foundation and structure of much of meteorology was founded, knowledge and awareness was minimal on the atmosphere during the early and mid 20th century. This is a key contributor to the saved lives and safety of many Stateliners on April 9th 2015.

The tornado that devastated Boone County 48 years ago was rated an “F-4″ on the Fujita Scale. According to the Fujita Scale, an F-4 tornado *estimates wind speeds between 207 and 260 mph, and typical damage includes well-constructed houses leveled, weak foundation structures blown away, and cars thrown. We now know that the Fujita Scale could over-estimate wind speeds, which is why we now use the Enhanced Fujita Scale (another educational advancement).

Still, the damage we see in photos of the Belvidere Tornado in 1967 grimly mimic the photos being posted from Fairdale within the past 11 days.

According to Jim Allsopp, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service, the Belvidere Tornado first struck just before 4PM 2 miles southeast of Cherry Valley. It went on to destroy 300 new cars and 100 employee cars at the Chrysler Plant, which was only a fraction of the damage it would go on to create. The tornado moved on to the southeast side of Belvidere, where 127 homes were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged.

At the time, Belvidere High School had just dismissed students onto buses filled with elementary school students. 12 buses were rolled over and children were flung into muddy fields.


In 2011, Ken Anderson (left) told WREX, “My bus (#30) was moved 100 yards by the tornado. I was wedged under a seat, my shirt soaked red with blood. I saw one, little body half buried in the mud. That memory, an 11 year old should never witness. In this picture, I am on the left (shirt tail out). That concerned look on my face marked the end of my childhood.” At Belvidere High School, 13 people were killed and another 300 were injured, which was just a little more than half of the havoc caused that day.




Dale Marks also vividly remembers April 21st 1967, “They tell me I was lucky. I only had both legs and pelvis broken. Our bus was just on the north side of the school. I think there were five people killed on my bus.’
belvtor1The Belvidere Tornado of 1967 went on to kill a total of 24 people and injure another 500.
To read Jim Allsopp’s full synopsis of the event, click here. To read all of the survivor comments from 2011, click here.



The Belvidere Tornado of 1967 was an F-4 and was up to 1/2 mile wide. It traveled 25-28 miles on the ground.
fairdale1The tornado that hit Fairdale (left) eleven days ago was an EF-4 that was nearly 1/2 mile wide. It traveled 30 miles on the ground.
But, what about the fatalities and injuries? During the 1967 F-4, 24 people were killed and another 500 were injured. During the 2015 EF-4, 2 people were killed and 22 were injured.







Education and awareness are saving people’s lives.

The Storm Prediction Center was able to put out the risk of severe weather nearly a week ahead of the April 9th event. The Chicago National Weather Service was able to implement watches and warnings with ample time to get to safety before these tornadoes struck communities. In fact, Ogle County Sheriff Brian Van Vickle stated, “I don’t think you could’ve asked for better warning.” Local TV meteorologists were able to give in depth explanations on air and online about WHY that Thursday could end with severe weather. We all could do this because of advancements in the world of meteorology.
4-9 radar image 2

In my opinion, the most important thing meteorologists can do is continue to explain to you WHY we could see dangerous weather, WHY we saw dangerous weather, or WHY we ended up not seeing dangerous weather. We’re living in a world with Google at our fingertips, with politics overlapping into sciences, and with education being pushed on everyone. We have been raised and trained to ask questions. Why would you believe something just because someone told you? You have the right to question. I think it’s our job to explain to you why it’s a threat, not just the fact that it’s a threat.

In my opinion, one of the most important things we as a community can learn from both of these deadly tornadoes, is the importance of heeding warnings and continuing to educate yourselves and listening to “the why” instead of chalking it up to “sensationalism,” “hype,” and even “TV ratings.”

Because awareness and education is one of the biggest contributing factors in the difference in death and injuries during severe weather.


Posted under event, history, news, safety, science, severe weather, statistics, tornado, weather, weather geek

This post was written by Morgan Kolkmeyer on April 20, 2015

What is a satellite tornado?

April 13, 2015: You’ve likely heard or read about this term since the April 9th tornado outbreak in the Stateline: satellite tornado.  So, what is it?

A satellite tornado refers to a tornado that forms within the same severe thunderstorm of a much larger, more intense tornado.  The smaller tornado orbits around the larger tornado, much like a satellite does around a larger body in space.  The tornadoes are completely separate from the primary, massive tornado. The cause of satellite tornadoes is unknown at this time; however, if conditions were ideal enough to produce a large, violent tornado, then it seems reasonable that secondary tornadoes could form too.

Approximate paths of the EF-4 tornado and two satellite tornadoes

Approximate paths of the EF-4 tornado and two satellite tornadoes

So far, at least two tornadoes have been identified by the National Weather Service as being satellite tornadoes to the massive, devastating EF-4 tornado that hit near Rochelle, Ashton, and Fairdale on April 9th.  One was a weak EF-0 tornado that touched down briefly east of Lindenwood and I-39. The second was an EF-1 tornado that formed northwest of Kirkland, then moved to just north of the Boone Co. line.

The NWS is still investigating the damage from last week’s tornado outbreak, and more tornadoes may be identified, as well as additional tornadoes designated as satellites of the violent EF-4. This information may change a little, so we will keep the updates coming as we get them.



Posted under science, severe weather, tornado, weather

This post was written by Alex Kirchner on April 13, 2015

Looking back on April 9th, 2015

Last Thursday was our first taste of severe weather for the season and it was a very eventful day. The event started with a deepening, fast moving low pressure system. This low pressure system was the driving force for converging and gusty surface winds that evening. There was a strong frontal boundary difference making way for backing winds near the boundary helping rotation. The surface was very moist with dew-points observed at Rochelle and Sterling reaching 66° at one point. This became a perfect setup for a large and dangerous tornado.

The night began with some scattered strong thunderstorms, but no Tornado Warnings were issued until 6:09 PM and that is when storms started to fire up all across the Northern Illinois region.

TOR Timeline 9th

The first Tornado warning was for a radar signature of rotation just south of Cherry Valley. Soon after at 6:35 PM was the first issued Tornado Warning for a large wedge tornado near Ashton. Finally all tornado warnings had expired around 7:45 PM.

So far throughout the state of Illinois there have been 8 confirmed tornadoes. Four of these tornadoes were confirmed in the Stateline.

tornadoes april 9th

The strongest tornado being an EF-4 that tracked across Lee, Ogle, and DeKalb counties. This was the first EF-4 tornado on record in the Northern Illinois region since the community of Washington was struck by one in November of 2013. Wind speeds associated with this EF-4 Tornado were around 180-200 mph. This was the major tornado produced with this storm. There have been 2 fatalities confirmed with this tornado and more than 20 people injured. Structures in the small town of Fairdale, IL have been almost completely swept away.

The EF-4 was not the only tornado in the Stateline that was destructive. An EF-1 tornado with wind speeds up to 110 mph roared through areas just south of Belvidere. This EF-1 tornado first touched down near Flora Road where it impacted a zoo.  Two zoo animals died as a result of the damage caused by the tornado.

Then there were the two EF-0 tornadoes that were south of Cherry Valley and just south of Lindenwood that had little to no damage associated with them.

Here is a graphic posted by the National Weather Service in Chicago of the tracks of the four tornadoes.

nws tor tracks

This photo can be found on their Facebook and I have posted the link below. Also, surveying has not been completed all the way yet by the National Weather Service and when they come out with their newest information we will be sure to pass that along to all of you!

– Nick Jansen

National Weather Service Facebook post:


Posted under severe weather, tornado, weather

This post was written by Alex Kirchner on April 11, 2015

Rochelle Tornado Rating

April 10, 2015: The National Weather Service sent out damage survey teams to determine how many and how strong the tornadoes were that struck the Stateline Thursday evening. Today, they were able to put together a preliminary rating on the Rochelle tornado.  This was the massive wedge-shaped tornado that cause an unbelievable amount of damage outside of Rochelle, in Ashton, and in Fairdale. Turns out, that massive tornado was one of the strongest on the ratings scale.

The Rochelle tornado has been confirmed as an EF-4 tornado, preliminarily. The NWS survey team will conduct an aerial survey before the final confirmation.  This will help determine the tornado’s path, how long the tornado was on the ground, and if there were any additional tornadoes spawned from this massive twister (the NWS found evidence of at least one additional tornado).

The preliminary ranking and possible track of the Rochelle tornado

The preliminary ranking and possible track of the Rochelle tornado

The team estimates that the tornado was up to a half mile wide, with maximum wind speeds estimated between 180 and 200 mph. These winds speeds are able to level homes, which we unfortunately saw plenty of across the affected areas in Ogle, DeKalb, and Boone Counties. The survey so far sees this as a long track tornado, on the ground continuously for over 20 miles!

An EF-4 is considered a very violent tornado, and rated as one of the strongest tornadoes possible. In fact, had the winds been a little faster, this could have been an EF-5.

The EF-scale, which rates tornadoes based off of damage and wind speed

The EF-scale, which rates tornadoes based off of damage and wind speed

So why does the rating for a tornado come out after the tornado has struck? First of all, it is hard to determine a tornado’s size and strength based only off of the radar, or by photos or video evidence.  It is also extremely dangerous to be anywhere near a tornado, so its best to wait until the threat has disappeared. Analyzing the destructive power of the tornado helps determine the wind speeds more accurately, leading to the ranking for the tornado. This is why the National Weather Service conducts these investigations afterward.

The process for rating a tornado with the National Weather Service

The process for rating a tornado with the National Weather Service

The Rochelle tornado was not the only one of the day- there was at least one other tornado near Cherry Valley earlier in the evening, plus the possibility of other tornadoes developing near or with the Rochelle tornado. The National Weather Service will continue investigating this weekend, and will have rankings on the other twisters in the coming days.



Posted under severe weather, tornado, weather

This post was written by Alex Kirchner on April 10, 2015

Thursday’s Severe Threat

The threat for severe thunderstorms still exists on Thursday.

Before we get there, we see the development of showers and thunderstorms overnight on Wednesday, producing a quarter to a half inch of rainfall. As of right now, these thunderstorms do not look to have the capabilities of turning severe. Same story as we head into early Thursday morning. Scattered showers and possibly thunderstorms can occur. The chance of these posing a severe threat is low, but I DO NOT want to rule out the chance completely.

4-8-15 timing








The Storm Prediction Center has much of Illinois (including the Stateline) under an enhanced risk for severe thunderstorms.

4-8-15 spc convective outlook








We start to see the potential for these to turn severe as we head into the early afternoon. As of right now, it looks like thunderstorms will continue to develop and pose a severe threat between 1PM and 6PM on Thursday.

If these t’storms turn severe, the possible threats include damaging winds, large hail, and isolated tornadoes. Now is the time to start thinking of your safe place at home, work, and school. Please remember, tornado sirens are for outdoor warnings within ear’s reach. A NOAA Weather Radio is a great way to receive weather alerts indoors.

4-8-15 expect









In the hours ahead, key ingredients to producing severe thunderstorms can change quickly. We will continue to analyze new information throughout the day. Chief Meteorologist Alex Kirchner will have the latest on 13 News at 5, 6 and 10 tonight, to let you know if the timing or the threat for these storms changes.
Keep up with us on Facebook at and online at for the latest information.



Posted under rain, science, severe weather, tornado, weather, Wind

This post was written by Morgan Kolkmeyer on April 8, 2015

Project: Tornado- Sign up coming soon

PT_BLOG_684x132Attention teachers and principals! We want to come to your school!

Every year, we put together an extensive education campaign called “Project: Tornado.” The 13 Weather Authority team travels to at least one school every day for an entire month to talk to students about severe weather and tornado safety.  Project: Tornado will start on April 27th.

If you are interested in WREX coming to your school, stay tuned! Sign up will be on a first-come, first-served basis, and will be coming very soon. Keep an eye on or our Facebook and Twitter pages (WREX-TV and 13 Weather Authority) for the announcement!



Posted under Project: Tornado, tornado

This post was written by Alex Kirchner on February 25, 2015

The tornado story I won’t ever forget

In a decade and a half of broadcasting, there are only a handful of people whose words stick in my head year after year. Bonitta Hammett is one of those people and I won’t ever forget her story.

While working for KLTV in Tyler, Texas in 2002, my colleague Morgan Palmer and I made a two-day trek to Central Texas to document the fifth anniversary of the Jarrell, Texas F-5 Tornado. We got to the town of 1,000 and stopped at a diner along the frontage road on I-35. Our News Director at the time often found news stories by overhearing what the “old timers” were talking about at the local diners. Feeling like outsiders, we went in and started asking folks for their memories. Everyone was so friendly to offer their story. After listening for a while, it became clear that the people there didn’t see us as outsiders at all. Someone said “You need to talk to the Hammett family.” Being such a small town, it was easy to get their phone number. We gave it a call and scheduled an interview for the afternoon. In the hours before the interview, Morgan and I walked down to the spot where whole houses were taken down to their slabs. It was really hard to understand. Even to this day, if I didn’t walk those streets, I wouldn’t get it. The Asphalt street in one neighborhood was ripped up by the tornado, leaving only a dirt path. We found the memorial and playground, erected on the site of where the tornado did the most damage. I remember spinning 360°, looking for some sort of debris leftover after five years. Sure enough, on the edge of a field, I spotted an engine stuck in a tree.

While I was in charge of telling the weather story behind Jarrell, Morgan focused on the people involved. Bonitta was a child when we sat down with her in 2002 but she spoke as if she was an adult and the tornado happened yesterday. Her house was flattened during the tornado while she and her mom took refuge in the bathtub. After it ended, the bathroom door wouldn’t open so they had to escape through the window. On the other side of the bathroom door was nothing. The car in their garage was never found and only pieces of the engine block were recovered weeks later.

Yesterday was the 17th anniversary of the tornado that killed more than two dozen people in this very small town. The tornado formed to the northeast and moved to the southwest…completely opposite of the direction of most tornadoes. One of the folks in the diner told me that when some people at the factory caught a glimpse of the funnel, they went to see if the tornado had hit their homes. Little did they know the tornado was moving into town, and not moving away. Those people ended up directly in the path and died.

I wonder what Bonitta Hammett’s life is like today. For being such an adult back then, I’m optimistic she turned out alright. It’s odd to think that she’s in her 20s now, especially since she doesn’t age in my memory.

-Eric Sorensen


Posted under tornado

This post was written by qni_it on May 28, 2014