Weather patterns more common with the heart of summer appear to be arriving as May enters its finale.
While that’s welcome news for stifling the tornado threat in the nation’s heartland, weather officials say, it could be bad news for farmers, ranchers and thirsty cities.
“The jet stream is unusually weak for this time of May,” said Mike Smith, an executive vice president for AccuWeather.
That’s common summer fare in Kansas, weather officials say.
If a classic summertime pattern settles in later this month, Smith said, “It’s going to be a big problem. That’s just going to lock us into the drought.”
The warning signs have been there: Wichita, for instance, broke high-temperature records three times in a four-day stretch in early May, including the earliest 100-degree day in the history of the city.
“When it was 105 in Altus (Okla.) in early May, that’s just a really, really bad sign” of things to come, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
Temperatures could reach triple digits again as early as Tuesday, according to AccuWeather.
But Paul Pastelok, head of long-range forecasting for AccuWeather, said the ridge of high pressure that can make for a long, hot summer when it sets up over Kansas is likely to be south and west of the Sunflower State this year.
That happened in 2013, when Wichita had one of its wettest summers on record. Nuances in where the ridge actually sets up will have much to do with how much precipitation Wichita and southern Kansas receive this summer, Pastelok said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the classic ‘dome of death,’ ” Pastelok said.
Indeed, the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center projects above-average precipitation for Kansas from June through August.
“I still expect rainfall to be at least average in much of Kansas this summer,” said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service. “I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon and declare that a hot, dry summer is upon us.”
While there is some disagreement about what summer holds for Kansas, weather officials are in accord that the prevailing weather patterns translate into few tornadoes for Tornado Alley.
“You guys may not have many tornadoes left in the season,” Pastelok said of Kansas.
The weak jet stream in upper levels of the atmosphere means ingredients that spawn tornadoes won’t be available, forecasters say. May has been remarkably quiet once again for tornadoes nationwide.
Statistics from the NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center show that, through Sunday, there had been 87 tornadoes in the U.S. in May, traditionally the busiest month of tornado season. To put that number in perspective, it’s little more than two-thirds the number of tornadoes that occurred in the quietest May in the past four years, which was 2012.
Forecasters say much of the rest of May is shaping up to be quiet for tornadoes as well.
While 220 tornadoes were reported in April, Brooks said preliminary reviews indicate the actual number could be about half that because several people were reporting seeing the same tornadoes from different vantage points.
“We’re going to be a competitor for the lowest” number of tornadoes on record, Brooks said of 2014.
If those trends hold, it would be the third consecutive year fewer than 1,000 tornadoes touched down across the U.S. Before 2012, that had occurred only twice since records began being kept more than a half-century ago. There were 991 tornadoes confirmed in 1987 and 957 in 2002.
There were 939 tornadoes in 2012, and 2013 saw 908.
“We’ve been well below normal for the last two years,” Brooks said.
A similar tornado drought occurred in the late 1980s, he said. Back then, weather researchers openly wondered whether Tornado Alley was becoming a thing of the past.
The 1990s snuffed that hypothesis, however, and no one is predicting tornadoes are about to disappear.
Just 13 tornadoes have touched down in Kansas so far this year, according to state climatologist Mary Knapp. It’s a reflection of how quiet the heart of Tornado Alley has been in 2014.
Oklahoma has had only four tornadoes through mid-May, she said, and Texas has seen 12.