‘It’s usually a few minutes, at best,’ says Environment Canada meteorologist about tornado warning lead time

Questions raised about timing of tornado warning in wake of Barrie twister

There has been criticism from some circles that the tornado warning issued by Environment Canada for Barrie on Thursday was too little, too late for people to take action to protect themselves, let alone their properties.

“In all honesty, we like to give as much lead time as possible,” says Steven Flisfeder, a warning preparedness meteorologist at Environment Canada.

Flisfeder told Barrie 360 that anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes is an incredible lead time, but more realistically, it’s usually a few minutes, at best.

Last Thursday, a severe thunderstorm watch was issued for Barrie just before the noon hour. Once the storms started to spark up, Flisfeder says a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at or slightly before 2:30 p.m., and a tornado warning was issued at about 2:38 p.m.

Doppler radar breakdown of Barrie tornado, July 15, 2021 (courtesy Reddit.com)

The tornado warning from Environment Canada, as written:

” Updated or ended by 3:56 P.M. Edt.

At 2:38 P.M. Edt, Environment Canada meteorologists are tracking a severe thunderstorm that is possibly producing a tornado. Damaging winds, large hail and locally intense rainfall are also possible.

A severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado is located near South Barrie, moving East at 65 km/h.

Hazard: 110 km/h wind gusts and nickel size hail. A tornado is also possible.

Source: Radar indicated.

Locations impacted include: Barrie, Innisfil, South Barrie, Sibbald point Provincial Park, stroud, Kempenfelt Bay, Georgina Island and Sunset Beach.

Take cover immediately, if threatening weather Approaches. If you hear a roaring sound or see a funnel cloud, swirling debris near the ground, flying debris, or any threatening weather approaching, take shelter immediately.

Go indoors to a room on the lowest floor, away from outside walls and windows, such as a basement, bathroom, stairwell or interior closet. Leave mobile homes, vehicles, tents, trailers and other temporary or free-standing shelter, and move to a strong building if you can. As a last resort, lie in a low spot and protect your head from flying debris.”

The warning sent an alert to TV and radio stations, as well as cell phones. The turnaround time between the alert being issued and arriving on phones is a matter of seconds, according to Environment Canada. The weather office doesn’t have an exact time when the tornado touched down in southeast Barrie, except it was likely a few minutes before or after the warning was issued.

Flisfeder says the storms that occurred on Thursday were supercell, which can produce tornadoes but doesn’t always.

“The team watching radar were very honed in trying to see as many details as they could in order to make that final decision,” says Flisfeder, who was not in the weather office that day. “In all honesty, we would like to give as much lead time as possible. Anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes is an incredible lead time. But more realistically, it’s usually a few minutes, at best.

Environment Canada did alert the public there was a tornado threat that day.

“It’s an extremely dynamic process,” says Flisfeder. “You have lots of interactions in the atmosphere so we can get a sense of whether or not the ingredients are conducive to a tornado are present, and on Thursday we did see that was true.”

“We did have a mention of tornadoes being possible in our severe thunderstorm watches and our warning before the tornado warning itself was issued. So, it was always known to be possible. But it’s extremely difficult to know when and where a tornado actually will form.”

Another issue for forecasters is whether a tornado is going to touch down or remain as rotation aloft and never actually hit the ground.

“There is a lot of research ongoing,” says Flisfeder. “People are trying to model tornado information with supercomputers.”

Meteorologists have not reached the point where they can have that definitive answer.

Another concern forecasters have is false alarms. Putting out an alert and nothing happens. It’s an ongoing conversation throughout the weather community.

“Having a severe thunderstorm watch out for several hours so people may see it in the morning when it’s issued, and they (the public) tell themselves they don’t see a storm and when is it going to come? It just leaves their mind, and then a thunderstorm warning is issued,” explains Flisfeder.

He says at that point people may get the sense the warning came out of nowhere, having forgotten there was a watch issued earlier in the day.

“Then there is the case a warning is sent for a specific region and the weather isn’t anywhere close to them, but it’s within their region. You might get the sense that it was all for nothing, and the next time a severe thunderstorm warning is issued, you might think back to that time and say the last time they issued it nothing happened, so why should I believe it this time?”

It’s something, says Flisfeder, that looms large in the minds of forecasters.

He says it’s important for the public to pay attention to all weather alerts in their area.

“That’s another problem with public psychology. We can only do our best to send a warning. We can’t force people to heed the warnings.”

Environment Canada confirmed the tornado that tore through Barrie was a category EF-2 tornado with a maximum wind speed of 210 km/h. There were four other tornadoes in southern Ontario that day which were confirmed to be of the same intensity, but damage was limited as they struck in far less populated areas.

Flisfeder says forecasters will be reviewing how they handled last week’s stormy events.

“We like to go back and see what was done. How the response was received by the public and try to think of things that may have been better to do in the situation so that we’re better prepared for the next event, because weather is always changing. We do like to review our procedures so that we have the best possible response.”

From Environment Canada:

Weather alerts

The type of alert used depends on the severity and timing of the event:

  • Warning
    • Urgent message that severe weather is either occurring or will occur
    • Updated regularly so that you can stay informed and take appropriate action
  • Watch
    • Alerts you about weather conditions where there is potential for a significant storm or severe weather to occur
    • Watch may upgrade to a Warning as certainty increases about the path and strength of a storm system
  • Advisory
    • Issued for specific weather events that are less severe, but could still significantly affect Canadians
  • Special Weather Statement
    • The least urgent type of alert
    • Issued to let you know that conditions are unusual and could cause concern
    • They provide notice of what weather may be coming