Beware the Tornado Drought: It Only Takes One

The Weather Channel published an article on Saturday touting the fact that the recent cold weather suppressed this March's number of tornadoes to almost nothing, with just four tornadoes confirmed through March 20. While this is an interesting bit of information from a weather geek standpoint, and one I've seen many weather enthusiasts Tweet and write about lately, it's risky to make a big deal about "tornadoes at a record low!" this close to the climatological ramp-up of tornado season.

According to data from the Storm Prediction Center, last year saw one of the lowest tornado counts in decades, with only 943 tornadoes confirmed by the National Weather Service for the entirety of 2013. This falls well below the eight year average of 1,478 tornadoes between 2005 and 2012. The total for 2013 is the lowest count since both 2002 and 2012, each of which saw 955 twisters, and the last year with a lower number of tornadoes was 1989, with 871 reported.

TWC's piece was a surprisingly solid piece of weather writing given the current state of their channel and associated website, and it pleased me to see this important nugget of information thrown in there — not prominently, mind you, but at least it's there:

However, history shows that a slow start to the year doesn't signal a quiet period is ahead. Both 2012 and 2013 featured at least 400 less U.S. tornadoes than the 10-year average. Despite that apparent tornado drought, we had the following destructive events:

  • Mar. 2-3, 2012: EF4 in Henryville, Ind.; EF3 in West Liberty, Ky.
  • May 19-20, 2013: EF5 in Moore, Okla.
  • May 31, 2013: EF3 in El Reno, Okla.

That is the most important takeaway from any story involving how many or how few tornadoes have occurred over a period of time: it only takes one tornado hitting one town to create a tragedy. I'm an avid follower of James Spann's Facebook and Twitter pages, and out of all of the posts and comments I've seen from meteorologists through the years, his one comment on one particular day stuck with me the most. He posted the link to one of his forecasts, and a gentleman asked if this year would be a bad tornado season. A few minutes later, Spann succinctly responded "it's a bad year if one hits your house."

That's the right way to frame stories like this. Yes, the last few years have been unusually quiet on the tornado front, but it only takes one to create a tragedy. One of the biggest disservices any meteorologist or weather enthusiast with an audience can do is to downplay something like tornado activity. It can lull people into a false sense of security, which can prove costly during a severe weather outbreak.

The state of severe weather education in the United States already needs improvement without the added complication of inattentiveness. In one 2003 study (caution: PDF file) of residents near the path of a damaging tornado in Indiana, the author's data shows that only 70% to 80% of those surveyed knew the difference between a "tornado watch" and a "tornado warning" — the former indicating that conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes, while the latter indicates that a tornado may be imminent. However, this number widely varies by age, education, and location; for instance, older residents of Oklahoma City would likely have greater knowledge of severe weather terminology than residents in, say, Pittsburgh. But it isn't a far stretch of the imagination to say that even fewer people elsewhere around the country know the difference between the two tornado alerts, or comprehend the severity and immediacy of a tornado warning.

If you do a search for "emergency alert system" on Twitter or ask any local television meteorologist who has to do a severe weather cut-in during a popular network program, people absolutely flip out when an emergency interruption happens. They will send stations vitriolic messages for having the gall to warn other people that there is a tornado warning. It's insane, but it's the sad truth — there are people who would rather watch American Idol than allow their neighbors in other counties to receive potentially life-saving information.

The general public doesn't need any more of a reason to ignore the threat for tornadoes, especially with the peak of tornado season approaching. If you talk or read about a lull in tornado activity, keep in mind that regardless of whether that season is above average or at a record low, every tornado is dangerous, and it only takes one tornado hitting one populated area to be a disaster.

[Image via Getty]