40th Anniversary of Great Vancouver Tornado

The Vancouver tornado of 1972 stands alone in the record books. It is the holy grail of Pacific Northwest tornadoes. Even now, 40 years later, the April 5th 1972 Vancouver tornado is the single deadliest tornado to strike west of the Rocky Mountains in modern history, killing six people and injuring more than 300 in Vancouver, Washington alone. Those who lived through that day witnessed the fury of mother nature to a degree that is not likely to be matched again anytime soon. The 1972 tornado was similar in atmospheric structure to that of the Hazel Dell tornado of January 2008. However, the 1972 tornado was much stronger. The 2008 Hazel Dell tornado was an EF1 on the newer Enhanced Fujita scale that became operational in 2007. Winds were likely between 90-110 MPH in the 2008 Hazel Dell tornado. The Vancouver tornado of 1972 was rated an F3 under the original Fujita scale which came online in 1971. Winds on the older Fujita scale were estimated between 158–206 MPH if rated as an F3, as was the case in the Vancouver tornado of 1972.

Here is a tornado track map of the Vancouver tornado of April 5th 1972 —

If you would like to download the full resolution image of this map, please click: http://img839.imageshack.us/img839/910/tornadotrackmap1972.jpg

Unlike tornados east of the Rockies, tornados in the Pacific Northwest are referred to by many as “cold core” due to their lack of humid and buoyant air. The Pacific ocean keeps our atmosphere relatively mild year round. This is not conducive for the formation of super cell thunderstorms needed to generate the really large and damaging tornados you might see in the Midwest. What makes the 1972 tornado so rare is the fact that it was able to spin up to F3 status and stay on the ground for nearly 8 miles. Meteorologists I have spoken with over the years have hypothesized that both the Columbia River and Vancouver Lake could aid in the development of tornados across Clark County. Although the larger mechanism at play for these tornados lies in the atmosphere above us, there is something to be said for these two large bodies of water sitting just upwind from where these two tornados formed and tracked. Some Meteorologists believe that Vancouver sits in a rare atmospheric location, on the down slope side of Portland’s West Hills. As a line of strong springtime showers moves west to east over the west hills, it often collides with upper air flowing south to north up the Willamette Valley. When these two air masses collide, it creates some degree of rotation in the atmosphere. Even with the proper atmospheric conditions present, the odds of seeing another “perfect storm” akin to April 5th 1972 is extremely small, no matter which method of calculation you use.

Portland National Weather Service Office Write Up On The 1972 Vancouver Tornado & Wind Reports

Here is some excellent historical information on the April 5th 1972 tornado, compliments of the Portland office of the National Weather Service.

A very turbulent squall line moved northeast across Portland, causing scattered wind damage, broken tree limbs, and even uprooting some trees. Track of the strongest storm cell in the squall line was first indicated at Tigard where straight line winds unroofed a lumber warehouse at 12965 SW Pacific Highway, and its debris damaged five vehicles parked in a neighboring service station. High winds were experienced across the West Hills of Portland and tree limbs littered Hamilton Park. Passage of the storm cells across Portland caused a 0.12 inch pressure jump as recorded by the NWS Climatology Office in the Multnomah Building in downtown Portland. Straight line winds toppled several trees at the south edge of the Riverside Country Club just 1.4 miles southwest of the Columbia River’s south bank.

The tornado that developed from this storm fist touched down at the south edge of the Columbia River damaging four pleasure boat moorages in the 3300 to 3400 blocks of NE Marine Drive. About 50 cabin cruisers were either damaged or blown about by the wind as it damaged a dry dock, boat houses and dock shelters. The funnel was not observed locally because it was obscured by mud and flying debris. It was described as a clack mass, and several persons reported seeing water being drawn up into the cloud as the tornado moved one-half mile before crossing the Oregon-Washington state line in the middle of the Columbia River and continuing on to the Washington shore. Observers were unable to see across the Columbia River because of the water vapor. The tornado continued its nine-mile total damage path across the east side of Vancouver to the Brush Prairie area. Six persons lost their lives in Vancouver when Peter S. Ogden Elementary School was ripped apart, along with a local bowling alley and a nearby store. 300 persons were injured. The tornado caused five to six million dollars in property damage in Vancouver alone. The tornado was the most devastating tornado in Oregon and Washington recorded weather history, dating back to 1871.

Wind Reports from April 5 1972, per the Portland Office of the National Weather Service

  • 3417 NE Marine Drive, Portland, South wind 40 to 50 mph before the storm hit, then South wind hit 120 mph before measuring equipment was damaged.

  • 3737 NE Marine Drive (Portland) Southeast wind 80 mph

  • Portland National Weather Service Office, 5421 NE Marine Drive (about 1 mile east of the tornado touchdown) recorded a gust of 63 mph from the south at 12:53 pm.

Links on the web

Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society:

National Weather Service Portland’s list of past local tornados:

National Database of United States Tornados 1950-2010:


Reminder — Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society to Host Regional Climate Change Meeting with Oregon Climatologist Dr. Phil Mote at Portland State University on Tuesday, April 10th 7-9pm —

The Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) will co-host a two hour meeting at Portland State University’s Grand Ballroom with Oregon Climatologist Dr. Phil Mote on Tuesday, April 10th from 7-9pm. This free public meeting will explore humans role in global climate change. It is being billed as, “The Scientific Case for Human Influence on Global Climate: What We Learn From Analyzing ALL The Evidence.” If you would like complete details about this meeting, including a PSU campus map and driving directions, please see: http://www.ametsoc.org/chapters/oregon. Joining Dr. Mote will be Andreas Schmittner, Oregon State University Professor of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and Dr. Christina Hulbe, Professor of Geology at Portland State University. The panel plans to give a single joint presentation that will educate attendees on the influence humans have on climate, as backed by scientific evidence. The panel may also raise counterpoints to data presented at a similar Oregon AMS meeting last January. In that meeting, the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) hosted a panel of scientists that asked the question, “Is Human Caused Global Warming the Greatest Scientific Myth of Our Generation?” For a recap of the January meeting click: http://tinyurl.com/6vk27km.

Stay tuned!
Steve Pierce, President
Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS)

Don’t forget — you can now get my latest in depth weather and climate updates via Facebook. Send me a friend request at http://www.facebook.com/stevepiercevancouver and I will add you in. Not on Facebook? E-mail me at stevejpierce@comcast.net. Don’t forget to bookmark this blog at http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/weather for my latest thoughts. Are you a professional meteorologist or just interested in weather? Why not join the single largest chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in the country with nearly 200 fellow members? The Oregon chapter of the AMS is just $7 a year. We host eight monthly meetings from Sept-June, including the annual Winter Weather Forecast Conference in Portland each fall! Even if you are not a local resident you can still stay updated via e-mail on all of the latest chapter happenings, upcoming meetings and historical weather stats. For additional membership details or to download a membership application please see http://www.ametsoc.org/chapters/oregon/membership.html

Steve Pierce

Steve Pierce

Steve Pierce is widely known as Oregon and Washington's "go-to-guy" when it comes to fast, accurate historical meteorological research and forecasts. Steve is currently the President of the Oregon Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Steve is also recognized as a regional weather commentator and blogger who can be heard on local radio stations and seen in print media outlets across the Pacific Northwest. His Weather Blog is hosted by the Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Check it out! He is a third generation resident of Vancouver, Washington and holds a degree in Communications. Both sets of Steve's grandparents migrated to Vancouver during World War II. One set traveled from Lenox, Iowa to work in the Kaiser Shipyards supporting the war effort. The other set came to Vancouver from Olympia, Washington to work as educators for the rapidly expanding Vancouver School District. When the war was over, both sets of grandparents decided to stay in Vancouver and continue raising their families, as did thousands of other families at the time. Those who are most familiar with Steve can attest to the fact that weather is his true passion. His love for "all things weather" began at the age of 7 when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. He was fascinated with which direction the ash plumes were headed. Then came the very powerful windstorm of Friday, November 13, 1981, also referred to as the "Friday the 13th" storm. This was the strongest storm to hit the Portland / Vancouver area since the great Columbus Day Storm of 1962! At age 11, he was asked to publish an extended weather forecast for his elementary school's weekly newsletter. In the 1980's, at age 14, Steve was the youngest of KGW-TV's local "weather watchers" and would phone in his daily Vancouver weather stats to then television meteorologist Jim Little for use on-air. Steve has lived through all of the major Pacific Northwest weather events of the past 30 years, and then some. The most notable events include; the bitterly cold winter of 1978-1979, the record setting snow storms of January 1980, the summer heat wave of August 1981, the windstorms of November 1981 and December 1995, the severe arctic blast of February 1989, the record flood of February 1996, the historic ice storm of January 2004, the Vancouver tornado of January 2008 and the record setting snow storm of Christmas 2008. Not to mention every Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption in between. With access to the most extensive set of historical weather records available to date, Steve has personally designed and integrated a proprietary system that gives him the ability to quickly locate and manipulate weather data as far back as the 1800's. As one local Meteorologist put it, "Steve has fast access to historical weather data that is needed for media, agriculture, business, personal, historical and other climatological needs. He can quickly manipulate the data in many different ways. His forecasts are also quite accurate, especially at longer lead times." Steve also provides local storm assessments, narratives and weather presentations to the general public, as requested. In his spare time, Steve enjoys spending time with his family, the outdoors, vacationing at his family's coastal cabin and just relaxing! By the way, do you like your weather on the "extreme" side? So does Steve! Whether it is collecting damage assessment data & photos after record setting 125 mph winds at the coast in December 2007, being one of the first on the scene after the January 2008 Vancouver tornado, or feeling (literally) the awesome power of 100 mph wind gusts at Oregon's Crown Point in January 2010, Steve has experienced it all! As Steve says, "don't just love weather, live weather!" Check out Steve's personal weather website at: http://www.piercevideo.com/weather.shtml

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