Finger on the Weather

April turns eyes to the sky in Tornado Alley

Kansas has averaged 95 tornadoes a year over the last 30 years, but not one has touched down in the Sunflower State so far in 2018. This tornado formed near Scott City two years ago.
Kansas has averaged 95 tornadoes a year over the last 30 years, but not one has touched down in the Sunflower State so far in 2018. This tornado formed near Scott City two years ago. Mitzie Hoeme

As April arrives each year, a question creeps into the mind of almost anyone who lives in Kansas.

When will the tornadoes come?

It's natural for residents of the Sunflower State to wonder, since Kansas is in the heart of Tornado Alley. Kansas has recorded tornadoes every month of the year and has averaged 95 tornadoes a year over the past 30 years.

But last year was rather quiet — just 60 tornadoes — and this year has been even slower. Not a single tornado has touched down in the Sunflower State yet.

Even Oklahoma and Texas — the other tenants of Tornado Alley — have been unusually calm so far, state climatologist Mary Knapp said in an e-mail response to questions. One tornado had formed in Oklahoma and two in Texas through the middle of March's final week.

Ironically, California has had more tornadoes this year than Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas combined. Tornadoes are "not something usually reported there," she said.

National numbers as of late last week were about half of what the U.S. total typically is in late March, said Patrick Marsh, warning coordination meteorologist for the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

"The biggest problem is, it's been cool," said Jack Boston, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather in Wichita. "The temperatures have been running below normal in many areas."

Something else has played a role in Kansas, too: Drought.

Virtually the entire state is either abnormally dry or in some stage of drought. When the ground is that dry, Boston said, moist air "really has trouble advancing that far north" because the water evaporates over the parched soil.

History suggests the hot zone for tornadoes this year will be east of Kansas, given how dry the Great Plains were this winter.

Those conditions will conspire to keep Tornado Alley quiet through at least the first half of April, Boston said. But then the pattern will shift.

"Once the moisture starts getting up here, we are actually looking for near normal severe weather" from mid-April on, Boston said. "We're going to flip a switch in the middle of April."

Boston said he expects Kansas to log an average number of tornadoes this year, which may seem busy to many after a quiet start to the season and lower-than-normal numbers the past two years.

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