Tornado Capital of the World

Caddo County, just west of Oklahoma City, has been hit by at least 111 tornadoes from 1950 through 2012.  The rest of central Oklahoma is about as unlucky.  Geography is to blame, particularly from mid April through mid June when conditions ideal for tornadoes occur with regular frequency.  The Gulf of Mexico and its warm, humid air is close by to the south.  Just to the west and northwest is Colorado and, in particular, the Colorado Front Range with its peaks to 13,000 feet.  The Front Range acts to strengthen low pressure areas which draw dry air from the west and humidity from the south.  The southerly winds near the ground undercut the dry air blowing in rapidly from the west/northwest which creates rapidly rising air and spin.  The result, more often than any other place in the world, is tornadoes.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

Tornadoes Before TV

Lee Sandlin’s book, “Storm Kings: The Untold Story of America’s First Tornado Chasers,” continues to fill my head with ideas even after I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.  People caught in the path of a significant tornado today are changed forever.  But at least we have television news and, of course, the Internet for observing these storms and their aftermath.  Imagine a European settler in the 1600s or 1700s (even 1800s) experiencing a tornado without having any idea what it was.  Tornadoes are more common in America than anywhere else in the world and the European immigrants to the New World had nothing to reference.  To these people, a tornado must have seemed to have been a metaphysical event, perhaps evoking deeply a deeply spiritual reaction.      Meteorologist John Wheeler

More or Fewer Tornadoes?

The round of violent tornadoes early this week across the South raises the following question. Is our changing climate affecting tornadoes? The two major forces which create favorable environments for tornadoes are atmospheric instability and wind shear. Global climate change models have always indicated that a warming atmosphere will have more instability but less wind shear, suggesting the two would balance each other out. But global climate models are generalized models and have only suggested how these two elements would change in general. New research suggests that wind shear will decrease overall but conditions of high wind shear may increase particularly on the days of high instability. In other words, we might have fewer tornado days but an increase in the number of occasions with a high concentration of tornadoes. This is actually borne out in recent years as records have been set for the most and also the fewest number of tornadoes in a year. Meteorologist John Wheeler

Orange Tornadoes

Last week on Halloween, 42 tornadoes were reported across the country.  Most of those were confirmed with storm survives over the following days.  That was the most tornadoes reported on October 31 since at least 1950.  That was also the highest daily tornado count in the United States since early July.  

Yet, even with a high number of tornadoes recorded last week, the 2013 season overall has been one of the quietest since good severe weather records started in 1950.  Not only has the tornado season been quiet, but so has the Atlantic hurricane season.  Through October the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index was the 4th lowest since 1950 for the Atlantic basin.  

Plus, it will probably be another year without a major hurricane strike on the lower 48 states, continuing the longest such streak since at least the Civil War.

Slow but Deadly

The two EF-5 tornadoes in Moore and El Reno, Oklahoma in recent weeks have definitely put severe weather in the headlines.  Yet, even with those two tragic events, the overall tornado count for the year is actually below average.  Through June 9, the preliminary tornado count in the country stood at 518, far below the average count of 930 tornadoes through that date.  The average is based on the years 2005 through 2012.

The preliminary count of 518 is the fewest tornadoes observed since 2005, even lower then last year when a drought impacted most of the plains and with limited thunderstorm activity, there were in turn fewer tornadoes reported.  These past two years with fewer than average tornadoes comes after some very active tornado seasons.  Both 2008 and 2011 recorded around 1500 tornadoes through early June, with 2008 ending up with over 2000 tornadoes reported for that entire year.

Tragic End

Back on June 24, 2012 a tornado, associated with Tropical Storm Debby, moved through Highland County, Florida.  Very tragically, a young mother was killed protecting her baby from the violent wind that struck her house.  The baby still wrapped in her mother’s arms suffered broken ribs, cuts and bruises, but did make a full recovery.

That tornado death was the last one reported in the United States until last Wednesday’s severe weather that hit northern Georgia particularly hard.  An EF-3 rated tornado moved through Adairsville, Georgia killing a man when a tree fell on a shed he happened to be seeking shelter in.  That stretch of 220 days was the longest stretch between tornado deaths in the country since such records have been kept in 1950.

The previous record was 197 days which occurred from late 1986 through early 1987.  That period many of you will recall was also a period of drought and the corresponding lack of thunderstorms in the United States.

Where have all the Tornadoes Gone?

After a fairly fast start earlier in the year, tornadoes have been uncommon for the past several months. After the large tornado outbreak in the central plains from April 13-16, the tornado season quickly went quiet.  Since then, the number of tornadoes recorded in the United States has been less than 50% of average.

Plus, those numbers are based on preliminary counts and the actual number official numbers are almost always even lower.  So far this month, only 2 tornadoes has been reported in the country.  The lowest July total on record (good tornado records only go back to 1950) was back in 1950 when just 23 tornadoes were observed.  Considering that almost 100% of tornadoes are currently reported which was not the case back in 1950, that record may be hard to break.

Fewer tornadoes would generally be thought of as a good thing, yet, the overall lack of thunderstorms attributing to fewer tornadoes, is one of the leading reasons why many parts of the country are currently experiencing drought conditions.

Palm Sunday

April 11, 1965 was Palm Sunday.  That day at least 21 tornadoes were recorded with 17 of those being rated as a F3 or higher.  By the end of the day 271 people lost their lives with over 3000 more injured from those tornadoes.  It is known as the Palm Sunday outbreak and at the time it was the 2nd worst outbreak known and even today, it ranks as the 4th deadliest outbreak on record.

That horrific day led to significant changes to the warning system.  Today, tornado watches are issued when conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop, but back in 1965, tornado forecasts were issued that research found were misunderstood by many.  Plus, the limited radar coverage at the time and poor communication of where the tornadoes were meant the storms came as a surprise in many areas.

The current nearly instant communications between the National Weather Service and the media, better radar coverage and system of severe weather watches were all improvements that came from lessons learned from that fateful day.

Tornadoes

After a spring with a very high number of tornadoes across the South, and a scary wind storm with tornado warnings here on May 30, a lot of people have a renewed fear of tornadoes.  Like fear of flying, spiders, or snakes, a fear of tornadoes is based in a genuine danger.

However, in many people, this fear is heightened unrealistically during stormy weather.  This unrealistic fear turns tornadoes into a mysterious, almost evil force in our minds.  So maybe a little tornado reality will help.  First of all, tornadoes are nothing but wind and wind is nothing but moving air.  Any column of rising air, from a dust devil to a hurricane, rotates.  A tornado vortex is a secondary circulation caused by an irregularity in a larger circulation found in some strong thunderstorms called a mesocyclone.

Two-thirds of tornado deaths are caused by EF4 and EF5 tornadoes, which comprise just 2 per cent of all tornadoes. The vast majority of tornadoes do not kill people

A Bad Year

In many different statistical categories, 2011 is turning into one of the worst years on record for tornadoes.  April set the record for the most tornadoes with 875 reported across the nation.  Tornado numbers in May are still preliminary, but the national total for 2011 so far is already approaching the three-year average over an entire year and it isn?t even June yet.  There have been an unusual number of large and violent tornadoes and several have hit large population centers including Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Joplin, resulting in some 500 deaths so far this year.

But before jumping to the conclusion that we now live in a new and terrible tornado regime, consider that tornado activity had been below average for several years in a row.  Consider also that, historically, there have been years with high tornado statistics from time to time.  Much like the wild hurricane season back in 2005, the U.S. is having a really bad time with tornadoes this year.

But it is likely just a bad year and not a foreboding change.