For the fourth consecutive year, the number of tornadoes that touched down in the United States is well below normal.
Preliminary data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center shows there were 971 tornadoes around the U.S. through October – a time period that typically sees nearly 1,150. That means there were about 15 percent fewer tornadoes than normal.
“We were pretty quiet most of the time, even in the Plains,” said Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
“We just didn’t have much shear,” Brooks said. “We had enough instability to get storms, but not enough shear to get them organized” into the kinds of storms that produce a lot of tornadoes.
More tornadoes in Kansas
Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were among nine states that recorded more tornadoes than normal through August. Two of those nine were Massachusetts, which had two tornadoes, and Hawaii, which had one.
Kansas, meanwhile, had logged 108 tornadoes by the end of August – 18 more than normal for that period.
The Kansas numbers deserve a footnote, weather officials say. All but a few of the state’s 108 tornadoes were weak and short-lived.
That same pattern could be found in the national statistics: More than 63 percent of the tornadoes that had touched down by the end of October were rated EF-0, which means they had winds of between 65 and 85 mph.
108 Kansas tornadoes through October 2015
There were 17 tornadoes in the 26 counties of southeast Kansas that comprise the warning coverage area of the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service, warning coordination meteorologist Chance Hayes said.
Two of the 17 were rated EF-3, with winds between 136 and 165 mph. One skirted Mount Hope in northwest Sedgwick County and moved into Harvey County on May 6. The other touched down in rural Reno County on July 13 and took the unusual track of moving south-southwest between Nickerson and Willowdale.
We’ve had several quiet years in a row following a very busy 2011.
Greg Carbin of the Storm Prediction Center
“We’ve had several quiet years in a row following a very busy 2011,” said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the Storm Prediction Center.
But Carbin and Brooks aren’t reading much into this relative sleepy spell.
When a similar tornado drought occurred in the late 1980s, researchers wondered whether Tornado Alley was becoming a thing of the past. But 1990 and 1991 ended such talk, producing tornadoes such as the deadly EF-5 ones that struck Hesston and rural Marion County on March 13, 1990, and Haysville, Wichita and Andover on April 26, 1991.
There were few days this year that qualified as a tornado outbreak, weather officials say. One of those came in November.
15 Tornadoes that touched down in northwest and southwest Kansas on Nov. 16
Fifteen tornadoes touched down in northwest and southwest Kansas on Nov. 16, weather officials said. It’s the first time tornadoes have touched down in November in northwest Kansas since official tornado records began being kept more than a half-century ago.
Nine of the 15 tornadoes touched down in southwest Kansas, including an EF-3 that was on the ground for more than 50 miles. The tornado touched down just east of Liberal, headed northeast “straight for Dodge City” and then veered north before lifting near Montezuma, said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service.
The tornado had a peak wind speed of 155 mph and was on the ground for 78 minutes. To have a tornado that strong stay on the ground for so long this late in the calendar year “is unprecedented” for southwest Kansas, Ruthi said.
“It was a typical May environment” in mid-November, he said.
The outbreak spawned “several large, long-lived and long-track tornadoes,” according to the report issued from the damage survey.
The same thunderstorm that formed the tornado near Liberal later spawned an EF-2 tornado that touched down south of Ensign and tracked almost straight north for more than 13 miles. It was on the ground for more than 20 minutes and had peak winds of 115 mph.
Two EF-1 tornadoes also formed – one that crossed into Comanche County from Oklahoma and another that touched down northwest of Ness City. Both stayed in rural areas.
Tornadoes one day, snow next
The springlike weather didn’t last long: A blizzard the next day prevented meteorologists in the Goodland office of the weather service from doing damage surveys in northwest Kansas.
Ruthi endured snow and harsh cold to conduct damage surveys in southwest Kansas.
“I’ve done damage surveys when there’s snow on the ground before,” he said, “but it was the first time I’ve ever done a survey when there was snow falling from the sky.
“It was probably the coldest, most uncomfortable survey I’ve ever done.”
Such a sizable November outbreak on the Great Plains hasn’t happened since the late 1980s, Brooks said – also during another dry spell for tornadoes.
“I can’t imagine any reason why there would be any connection between weak springs and big Novembers,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Ruthi isn’t about to draw sweeping conclusions from the November outbreak.
“One single event is not going to signal a significant change,” he said.
If there are two or three November outbreaks over a five-year period, Ruthi said, he will start taking a closer look at patterns to see whether a shift is taking hold.
“If we have the same environment in mid-December, it could happen then, too,” Ruthi said.
But such events are unlikely late in the year for a reason.
“It’s increasingly difficult to get moisture this far west in November,” he said.
Fronts need moisture to create any storms.
Brooks cautioned that unusually active Novembers in Tornado Alley do not signal an active tornado season the following year. In fact, the years in the 1980s that had active Novembers on the Great Plains were followed by quiet tornado seasons the following spring.
“There’s no reason to think next year will be a big one for tornadoes,” Brooks said.