quiet-tornado-start

2015 is off to a slow start for tornadoes in the United States. Through today, only 28 tornadoes have occurred anywhere in the country, with the majority of these (23) coming in a two-day event on January 3-4 over the Southeast. These numbers are still preliminary as compiled by the Storm Prediction Center, but have been filtered temporally ans spatially for duplicate reports.

The number since January 5 is even more noteworthy, with a preliminary total of only five tornadoes reported. Of these five, two occurred in Washington State on January 18, one occurred in Florida on January 23, another occurred in Florida on February 5, and one occurred in California on February 23. No tornado reports have been received thus far in the month of March.

Dr. Greg Forbes of the Weather Channel reports that this is only the second time March has gone tornado-less through the 16th since 1950, with the only other occurrence being in 1969. I am reasonably confident that this number won’t change much in the next seven days (see below). For reference, the average tornado counts by month are 35 in January, 29 in February, and 80 in March.

And it’s not just the tornadoes that have been quiet: It’s all severe weather.

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These maps break down March tornadoes based on where they begin.

march-tornado-touchdown-conus-grid

The total modern tornado count jumps from about 1,600 in February to about 3,800 in March. In many years, there’s little doubt that “tornado season” — or when peak activity occurs — is on its way.

It is just the beginning of the rise of the tornado, as overall tallies double into April and triple by May. While the territory impacted by tornadoes increases significantly from February to March, the highest density areas most often remain somewhat close to the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico.

Where tornadoes form: October, November, December, January, February

Depending on the averaging period, the month of March typically sees about 70 to 80 tornadoes touch down across the country. On a daily count, numbers pick up markedly as we progress. Research has found the current “start of tornado season” to be in the final third of March.

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Tornado in northwest Oklahoma on April 14, 2012. (Zachary Biggs via Flickr)

Tornado in northwest Oklahoma on April 14, 2012. (Zachary Biggs via Flickr)

Meteorological spring is upon us, and it is time again to take a look at the spring tornado forecast. Are we going to see a repeat of the last two years with low tornado numbers? Or are we finally going to turn things around in 2015?

Not much is expected in the way of tornado activity through the first chunk of March. It’s early for much in most years anyway, but we do usually see an uptick as the month goes.

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Cone tornado near Climbing Hill, Iowa on October 4, 2013. (Brett Roberts via Flickr)

Cone tornado near Climbing Hill, Iowa on October 4, 2013. (Brett Roberts via Flickr)

Last month, we showed you the basic ingredients needed for tornadoes to form. In part two of our series, we will take a look at the atmosphere in the horizontal to figure out where tornadic storms may form. This almost always means finding a boundary. Some boundaries are harder to find than others.

Most boundaries represent some sort of converging wind shift at the surface and in the lower levels of the atmosphere, which forces two different types of air masses together. When this happens, the converging air has no where to go but up. Rising air helps initiate cloud development. Under the right circumstances, these clouds can develop into tornadic thunderstorms.

The low-level winds along a boundary can provide storms with a continuous feed of warm, moist air, and can also enhance a storm’s low-level rotation in some cases.

NOTE: This is NOT a guide to storm chasing. It is meant for forecasting purposes only. The series reflects what is needed for a typical supercell tornado, and does not necessarily match what is needed for landspouts or waterspouts.

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These maps break down February tornadoes based on where they begin.

february-tornado-touchdown-conus-grid

As we close out meteorological winter, February continues the low point in the tornado year. When cold and dry air frequently floods the whole country, twisters are often hard to come by.

The current average is between two and three dozen during the month. However, throughout all of modern history since 1950, there is a noticeable uptick in cumulative numbers compared to months prior.

Where tornadoes form: October, November, December, January

While it’s a mostly quiet month, there have been some sizable events, and we’re often knocking on spring’s door as it closes.

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These maps break down January tornadoes based on where they begin.

january-tornado-touchdown-conus-grid

There have been about 100 more tornadoes in January than December throughout modern history. But as with most of the winter, the overall story is a quiet one.

Our most active zones during the month typically reside across the South and Mississippi Valley.

The present-day average for twisters during January is about 3 dozen. Even the coldest times of year often contain at least a handful of tornadoes.

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Tornadoes sweep through the Pilger, NE area in June 2014. (Aaron Rigsby via Flickr)

Tornadoes sweep through the Pilger, NE area in June 2014. (Aaron Rigsby via Flickr)

This is the first of a three part series that covers the basics on how to forecast tornadoes. In this post I’ll concentrate on the general necessary ingredients needed for a tornado to form.

Part two will examine the surface and low-level features in the horizontal layers (mostly meaning boundaries), and part three will discuss what you can look for that might hurt tornado development.

NOTE: This is NOT a guide to storm chasing. It is meant for forecasting purposes only. The series reflects what is needed for a typical supercell tornado, and does not necessarily match what is needed for landspouts or waterspouts.

Wind Shear

Wind shear creates spin. Tornadoes spin. So naturally, you want more wind shear to create more spin. However, there are a lot of subtleties to how the wind changes with height that can drastically alter how favorable a setup is for producing tornadoes.

In the most general sense, you want wind speeds to increase with height, and you want them to veer — change direction — with height. Veering in the northern hemisphere means the wind direction moves clockwise (i.e. south to west to north) as you gain altitude. Wind shear helps shape a thunderstorm’s updraft and gives it rotation. It is the most critical ingredient to creating a tornadic supercell.

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A nightmare before Christmas arrived in the form of deadly tornadoes across parts of the South on Tuesday.

It appears that Mississippi, where several deaths have been reported, was hardest hit.

Weird to have damaging and deadly tornadoes around the holidays? Or at all during winter for that matter… right? Sort of, but not too weird.

winter-tornado-deaths

The area of southern Mississippi where at least four likely tornado deaths occurred is part of a zone where December tornadoes are expected more often than other spots across the country during the month.

It’s also not far removed from specific tracks of prior deadly winter tornadoes. Quick note: In all cases here, winter refers to December-February — meteorological winter, and coinciding with the lowest three months of tornado activity on average. 

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2014 was not your normal year when it comes to tornadoes. In fact, early counts put it down there — hand-in-hand with 2012 and 2013 — among the least active on record.

On the whole, that’s a good thing for those who may face threats from these beasts of nature, though several high-impact events still did unfortunately occur.

Related: Top tornado videos of 2013 | Top tornado videos of 2012

Despite the lack of numbers, 2014 will be remembered for a long time to come, largely thanks to three days in June. Additional memorable tornadoes were peppered throughout the year.

February 20, 2014 – EF0 near Jacksonville, Illinois
by Dan Robinson

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These maps break down December tornadoes based on where they begin.

december-tornado-touchdown-conus-grid

Though tornado season lasts all year, it’s often hard to remember that in December. The monthly average is only about two dozen twisters across the entire country.

Numbers remain very low through the winter months as moisture-laden air is often hard to come by. Like other cool-season months, the most regular tornado activity during December resides close to the relative warmth of the Gulf of Mexico.

The areas of greatest concentration — spanning mainly parts of the mid-South — are not too different than November. But as with November seeing a contraction of land coverage compared to October, we see additional shrinking of “tornado country” during December.

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