Kansas could see uptick in tornadoes this spring, experts warn

It’s time for residents of Kansas to clear the cobwebs and move the boxes of Christmas decorations out of the way in basements and storm shelters.

Weather patterns are suggesting the Sunflower State and the rest of Tornado Alley is likely to have a stormy spring, officials say.

“There’s going to be more of an uptick” in tornado activity “in the Plains this year,” said Paul Pastelok, the lead long-range meteorologist for AccuWeather.

“The traditional Tornado Alley could be more active than the rest of the country,” he said. “I think you need to look out.”

Kansas is one of four states through the southern heartland of the nation identified by AccuWeather as high risks for tornadoes this spring, along with Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska.

While that may seem like an obvious forecast since Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are considered the heart of Tornado Alley, that historic hotspot for twisters has been remarkably quiet in recent years.

For the first time in recorded history, Oklahoma didn’t have a tornado in 2018 until May. Only 45 tornadoes touched down in Kansas last year, less than half the 30-year average of 95. Just 60 tornadoes formed in the Sunflower State in 2017.

There were no fatalities and just eight injuries caused by tornadoes in Kansas last year. The number of tornado fatalities across the U.S. reached a record low in 2018: 10. For the first time on record, there were no EF-4 or EF-5 tornadoes – featuring wind speeds of at least 166 miles an hour - anywhere in the United States.

This year isn’t looking to be as tame, forecasters say. A tornado outbreak last weekend in the southeastern U.S. has claimed more than 20 lives and included at least one EF4 tornado.

The current patterns leave Pastelok “nervous” about the potential for substantial tornado outbreaks this spring. He’s not alone.

“My initial thought is that we will have an active severe weather season once it gets started,” said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service. Local authorities are concerned Kansans have been lulled into a sense of complacency.

“We have had several years where we just haven’t been in the bullseye,” Butler County Emergency Management director Keri Korthals said. “We haven’t been the target.”

This is Severe Weather Awareness Week in Kansas, with the National Weather Service’s statewide tornado drill set for 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Sedgwick County Emergency Management will test sirens during the drill, weather permitting. McConnell Air Force Base will be conducting severe weather drills throughout the week.

It’s a great time to get the basement, cellar or designated storm shelter ready for use should violent weather threaten, Korthals said. That also means fresh batteries for radios and flashlights and making sure somebody hasn’t raided the emergency kit and helped themselves to snacks or first aid supplies.

“We are still in severe weather central,” Korthals said. “Mother Nature may have turned her attention elsewhere for a while, but it’s only a matter of time before she comes back.”

Forecasters are confident the Great Plains will be active because prevailing weather patterns show no signs of easing soon. Those patterns are bringing a steady supply of fronts through California into the Southwestern U.S. and then into the Plains.

Though cold air continues to plunge down from the arctic, forecasters say warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico is expected to start moving northward over the nation’s heartland as early as late March. The frequent fronts moving east will interact with that warm, moist air – setting the stage for violent weather, Pastelok and others say.

Abundant rain and snow this winter in the central Plains – including western Kansas - means vegetation will green up quickly as the weather warms, Ruthi said.

“Evapotranspiration will provide a lot of moisture once plants begin to grow,” he said, and that moisture will help fuel storms.

Weather patterns early in 2019 resemble 1995 and 2003, Pastelok said. Both of those years saw tornado totals that were close to the national average of nearly 1,200. Slightly below average numbers are expected this year, he said.

Kansas recorded 73 tornadoes in 1995 and 91 in 2003, according to the Wichita branch of the weather service. Of those 91 in 2003, 33 were in the Wichita metropolitan area or in southeast Kansas.

Recent years have seen tornado activity surge in the eastern U.S. and in the Northern Plains, and researchers have begun to wonder if Tornado Alley is shifting east of its historical boundaries.

But this spring is shaping up to be stubbornly retro, researchers say.

Jon Davies, a respected weather researcher and storm chaser based in the Kansas City area, said he expects tornado season in Kansas to be pretty quiet until late April – and then it could well make up for lost time.

“We’re about due for a violent tornado event or two in Kansas,” Davies said in an e-mail response to questions.

Korthals recalled similar talk of Tornado Alley’s demise following remarkably quiet tornado seasons in the late 1980s. But 1990 and 1991 saw a surge in tornado numbers, including massive twisters that struck Hesston, Haysville, Wichita and Andover.

“We could be sitting on a powder keg” this spring, she said.

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