A downburst of straight-line winds, not a tornado, snapped or uprooted hundreds of trees Wednesday at Raymond B. Winter State Park in Union County, emergency officials and weather experts determined.
The estimated 80 mph winds knocked out electric service at the park and nearby properties along Route 192 in the county’s west end, smashed a park pavilion and caused staffers to cancel weekend reservations.
Michael Crowley, park manager, estimated 500 trees fell or were damaged in the severe thunderstorm — among them, 100 pine trees planted in 1933 by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“We lost the historic pine plantation. It’s history you can’t get back,” Crowley said.
National Weather Service meteorologists on Thursday reviewed photos from the scene and determined a tornado had not formed during the severe thunderstorms.
Craig Evanego, meteorologist, explained that downbursts are caused when the wind blows at high speeds straight into the surface and is dispersed.
“You could easily get 70 to 90 mph winds out of those, which is the same as a small tornado,” Evangeo said.
Michelle Dietrich, Union County Emergency Management coordinator, surveyed the damage on the scene and communicated with meteorologists. She estimated the path of the straight-line winds at one mile.
The trees fell in a straight line and weren’t twisted or thrown. Dietrich added there was no rotation on the radar systems monitoring the storm.
“We are used to getting severe thunderstorms. For us to have the magnitude of storms we’ve had, even in this short period of time, is out of the ordinary,” Dietrich said. “Even the hail we’re getting is what they’re seeing in Kansas.”
The storm littered Route 192 with downed trees and just missed a direct hit on Crowley’s home at the park. It took hours for volunteers, including members of the Mifflinburg Hose and West End fire companies, to clear the path.
Storms dumped rain and hail and brought high winds across the Susquehanna Valley on Wednesday. Social media users, including in the Selinsgrove area, shared photos of hail large enough to cover the palms of adult hands.
Winds damage forest, cause cancellations
Office employees at R.B. Winter worked indoors by lamplight Thursday morning. The computer systems were down, meaning they couldn’t look up reservation information directly to reach out to weekend visitors.
Crowley advised anyone with a reservation to contact the park office at 570-966-1455 or the Bureau of State Parks at 717-787-6640.
Visitors like John and Jeri Earl, of Palmyra, didn’t have a choice. They had traveled about two hours from Sinnemahoning State Park. The married couple drove into the R.B. Winter area minutes after the storm passed Wednesday. They waited about an hour as volunteers cut away trees and freed up vehicles to pass through or enter R.B. Winter.
“We don’t need electricity,” John Earl said, explaining they were staying in a pull-along camper. “The kerosene doesn’t turn off when the trees fall over.”
Park rangers worked with electrical contractors to restore service knocked out by a downed line. They also sought to steer visitors away from hazards including Pavilion 1, damaged by trees, and Pavilion 3, which was destroyed.
Crowley drove along Route 192 and pointed out patches and swaths of trees toppled or leaning. The sure sign was looking at the canopy and observing any daylight at all.
“You see daylight?” Crowley asked as he slowly drove the highway. “You shouldn’t”
The damage to the canopy and the resulting exposure of daylight to the forest floor will have a lasting impact, perhaps minimal, on the ecology at the state park, Crowley explained.
“I think we should be pretty good. There’s always fear of invasive species. Because we’re so far in the forest, invasive species are far enough away it shouldn’t impact negatively this area too much,” Crowley said.
More tornadoes than usual
The National Weather Service in State College issued 19 severe weather warnings in Central Pennsylvania this year.
Across the state, there have been 24 tornados confirmed this year including one in Union County in April.
“That’s not a record yet but that’s above normal,” Evanego said. “Normal is 17 in a year.”
Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science and director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, studies extreme weather. The current outbreak of severe thunderstorms is associated with a stalled weather pattern, a phenomenon dubbed “planetary wave resonance.” It is associated with climate change, he said.
“There is growing evidence that a warming atmosphere, with more moisture and turbulent energy, favors increasingly large outbreaks of tornadoes,” Mann said. “There is also some evidence that we might be seeing an eastward shift in the regions of tornado genesis—again, consistent with what we are seeing.”