Deadly weekend tornado signals early severe weather season likely

Feb 26, 2018
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It was a record that we would have liked to have gone for as long as possible. Unfortunately, it ended Saturday. Preliminary information from the National Weather Service has determined that an EF2 tornado touched down in southern Logan County, Kentucky, killing one person near the Tennessee state border.

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This marks the first tornado fatality in the U.S. since May 16, 2017. A separate storm-related death near Knobel, Ark. on Saturday was also caused by an EF1 tornado.

Until last weekend, we had gone 283 days since a tornado caused a death in the United States. It was a record that far exceeded the previous streak of 219 days which lasted from June 25, 2012 to Jan. 29 and a 197-day span back in late 1986 to early 1987. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before it happened, but hopefully this is a trend we will see repeated, with fewer and fewer fatalities.

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On average, 71 people are killed each year in the United States by tornadoes. Tornadoes can occur in any month across the country, but over the last nine months, there have been fewer tornadoes compared to average. This likely helped with the lower death counts. The reason for the lower count is likely due to the impact of La Nina, although the exact reason is unclear.

One thing that is clear, we have entered an active weather pattern and what appears to be the onset of some spring-like weather. While I wouldn’t count out the return of winter just yet, we could be seeing signs of a coming early severe weather season. A look back at recent La Nina and El Nino events have shown an interesting trend to the severe weather seasons that follow. There is some data that suggests spring seasons following a La Nina year typically get off to a fast start on the number of tornadoes. That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more than normal, but it may be a good idea to start brushing up on your tornado safety tips early this year.

Another reason for the lower tornado count may have to do with our changing climate. A recent study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that a warming climate has already shown signs of decreasing the number of days where tornadoes occur. Harold E. Brooks along with other researchers compiled data on the occurrence of tornadoes in the United States between 1954 and 2013 to determine if and how tornado numbers have changed over that period.

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Although the authors saw no clear trend in the annual number of tornadoes, they did see more clusters of tornadoes since the 1970s. In other words, there has been a decrease in the number of days per year with tornadoes but an increase in the number of days with multiple tornadoes. Why this clustering effect has occurred is not yet clear and the research is continuing.

What is clear is that severe weather season is officially only days away as meteorological spring (the three-month period of March-May) arrives Thursday. Ohio typically sees the majority of it’s severe weather from April through June. Typically, Ohio averages between 17 to 19 tornadoes per year. Last year, we saw that number soar to 43. Hopefully, this will be a “calmer” year.

Eric Elwell is WHIO StormCenter 7 Chief Meteorologist. Contact him at eric.elwell@coxinc.com or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.