Home > Michigan Tornado History > Michigan Tornado History – January 18, 1996

Michigan Tornado History – January 18, 1996

This will be the first in a series of posts discussing some of Michigan’s unique, significant, and/or noteworthy tornado events.  In the posting for the 86th Anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado, I mentioned how Michigan once had a tornado in January.  I want to take a bit of a closer look at that event.

On Thursday January 18, 1996, at 5:01pm Local Time (2201Z), a brief tornado touched down in Richland, Michigan, a small town about 9 miles northeast of Kalamazoo.  From the National Climatic Data Center’s StormData:

Richland resident reported seeing a swirling cloud of debris with loud noise passing between his house and a neighboring house. The wind lifted a 10′ by 12′ metal storage shed that had been tied with guy wires, carried it over a 4 foot chain link fence, and set it down about 100 feet from its original position. Contents of the shed, including a lawn tractor, lawn chairs, mower, bikes, and yard tools remained intact and apparently undisturbed.”

The National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, Michigan, surveyed the event and gave the tornado a rating of F0, with a path length of 0.1 miles, and a width of 10 yards.


On the morning of January 18, 1996, a deep neutral/negative tilt trough was located across the central United States, with Michigan located in south-southwesterly diffluent flow.

500mb Map 12z 18 Jan 1996

500mb Map for 12z 18 Jan 1996

At the surface, a sub-1000mb low was located over West-Central Wisconsin, with a warm front passing through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and a cold front draped along the Mississippi River to a second low pressure located over Northwestern Arkansas.

AM Surface Map for 18 Jan 1996

AM Surface Map for 18 Jan 1996

Across Michigan, this meant unseasonably warm temperatures and moist south-southeasterly flow.  A look at the METARs for KAZO (Kalamazoo, Michigan) show temperatures in the mid- to upper-50s (11-15 degrees Celsius), reaching 58 degrees by 2pm LT (1900Z).  Dew point temperatures maxed out around 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius).

The 0000z 19 January 1996 sounding for Detroit modified for 2200z surface conditions at Kalamazoo shows a very moist profile from the surface to 550mb with a very low LCL of 916mb, and significant speed shear (20 knot surface winds and 75 knot winds at 1km).

Modified Sounding

Modified DTX Sounding for 2200Z at KAZO on 18 Jan 1996

This significant shear lead to a large cyclonically curved hodograph through the first 3 kilometers of the atmosphere:


0-3km Hodograph for KAZO at 2200z on 18 Jan 1996

where the green dot is an estimate of the storm motion for 18 Jan 1996, resulting in significant ingestion of helicity into any updrafts that developed.

As the cold front advanced across Lake Michigan and into Southern Michigan, a line of thunderstorms developed southwest of Kalamazoo, extending into Northern Indiana, and moved rapidly northeast.  Almost immediately, severe weather developed, with winds in excess of 70 miles per hour reported in Cass County at 4:25pm LT as strong winds immediately above the surface were pulled downward.

As the line of thunderstorms continued to intensify, they crossed into Kalamazoo County, and significant low level helicity was ingested into the northern edge of the storms, which, coupled with a very low cloud base, resulted in the formation of a short-lived weak tornado.


Line of Thunderstorms at 2203Z (shortly after producing a tornado)

In addition to the 70 mile per hour winds and the tornado, this line of storms would produce hail from 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter, and produced a significant winter storm in the Upper Peninsula.

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