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After a busy 2011, numbers of tornadoes dramatically down this year

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012, at 11:41 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

When most folks talk about the drought of 2012, they’re referring to the lack of rain.

But weather officials have noticed the absence of something else: tornadoes.

The past four months have all seen record or near-record lows for tornado totals, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.

With the most active months for tornadoes now past, 2012 is in the bottom 10 percent of years for tornadoes since uniform records began being kept in 1952.

“Pretty remarkable,” Carbin said.

May set a record low for the month, with only 121 touching down around the country.

July is poised to set a record as well. Though final numbers haven’t been posted, the preliminary total of less than 25 tornadoes across the U.S. is a dramatic drop from the current record low of 73 in 2007.

August’s projected total of about 45 is just above the 1957 record low of 39, and June’s total of 107 is bettered by the 94 from 1988.

The multi-month tornado totals break every existing record:

• The five-month total starting in April was 499, breaking the record of 620 in 1988.

• The four-month total of 293 blew away the previous record of 433 in 2006.

• The three-month total of 172 bettered the old mark of 285 in 2007.

The two-month total of about 65 is less than half of the previous record, 134 in 1989.

The years 1988 and 1989 were part of a stretch that saw so few tornadoes that weather researchers were openly wondering if Tornado Alley was on its way to extinction.

The reason for the lack of tornadoes this year is the same explanation for the widespread drought, weather researchers and forecasters say. A large dome of high pressure camped out over the Great Plains, pushing storm systems far to the north.

“It keeps the clouds and storms away and makes it dry,” said Jon Davies, a weather researcher based in Kansas City. “The high pressure pushes the jet stream far north. It went way north this year – and stayed there.

“It’s been very uneventful because of that.”

Mike Smith, senior vice president for AccuWeather, said the large tornado outbreak of April 14, which included a mile-wide tornado that slammed into the Oaklawn neighborhood and portions of Haysville and south Wichita, occurred during “a temporary break” in the pattern.

Looking for bigger picture explanations is problematic, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

“Global warming has certainly contributed to the hot summer and the hot summer, with the associated ridge over the central U.S., has been a strong factor in the low number of tornadoes,” Brooks said in an e-mail response to questions.

“Making the jump to associating global warming with the lack of tornadoes is probably a little over the top, though.”

It could take 100 years for any reliable patterns linking global warming and tornadoes to appear, Brooks said.

With the jet stream continuing to stay north for the most part – the tornadoes that hit New York recently are a reflection of that, Davies said – Kansas can expect a rather quiet “second season” as well.

That’s the name given to the autumn period when there’s a mini-spike in severe weather as a strong temperature differential between warm and cold fronts reappears.

“So far it’s been pretty quiet,” Davies said. “I expect that to continue, with the pattern that we have.”

Davies dismisses any suggestion that this tornado season is an indication of the future, too.

Folks who thought the incredibly active – and deadly – tornado season of 2011 was a preview of the future were contradicted by a remarkably quiet 2012.

“I really don’t know what to expect next year,” Davies said.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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