Tornadoes in the U.S., in Europe and elsewhere

tornadoes-hot-spots-around-the-worldLike the United States, Europe experiences its share of severe weather ranging from intense winter storms to violent thunderstorms accompanied by hail stones and even tornadoes. No continent remotely rivals North America when it comes to tornadoes. A vast majority of those tornadoes spawn within the 48 contiguous states of the U.S., mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC), headquartered in Norman, Oklahoma, keeps a history of tornadoes reported in the U.S. since 1950. The SPC is also situated in an area that has a relatively high frequency of strong to violent twisters. This band of intense tornadic activity, covering South Central states and most of the Midwest is referred to by the media as Tornado Alley.


Based on data pulled from the European Severe Weather Database (ESWD), 5,478 tornadoes have been reported from 1950 to 2015 in 42 countries. [Although waterspouts–generally weaker vortices over water–are included in the ESWD definition of a tornado, only those confirmed and verified, on land, were selected from the database for this article.] That comes to an average of 83 tornadoes per year in Europe. In December 2016, a research paper titled Tornadoes in Europe: An underestimated threat became available online with the purpose of raising public awareness as to the underestimated and under-reported threat of these funnel-shaped maelstroms of dangerous winds. Tornadoes were under-reported in the U.S. as well during earlier decades when reports of severe weather were handled by individual offices at the U.S. Weather Bureau, and overseen by the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA). For example, from 1953 to 2004, the average number of yearly tornadoes was 908. The annual average of U.S. tornadoes, based on the most recent 10-year period from 2005 to 2014, is 1,201. If you look at a 20-year span of tornadoes reported from 1995 to 2014, the average is higher at 1,239. A 30-year period, from 1985 to 2014, accounts for an average of 1,141 tornadoes.

In a PowerPoint presentation shared with North Jersey Weather Observers in May 2011 and published on SlideShare titled Overview of U.S. Tornadoes, I provided some explanations accounting for the increase in the number of tornadoes reported since 1990. [It is outlined on slide 22.]

  • Population increase: More tornadoes are observed and reported.
  • Better technology: More tornadoes are detected by meteorologists.
  • Greater knowledge: Fewer tornadoes are mistaken for straight line wind damage; downbursts; and gustnadoes, short-lived whirling gust fronts.
  • Confirmation: Fewer tornadoes are double counted by separate eye witnesses, reporting the same twister.

There was also an increased effort to improve severe weather forecasting and to effectively communicate likely and imminent hazardous weather alerts to the public.  So in 1966, ESSA formed a specialized branch of the U.S. Weather Bureau to do just that. And it was given the name: National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC). Part of the scope of the NSSFC was to centralize and verify severe weather data from radar, and eye witness accounts (observed and videotaped) from storm chasers, the media and individuals. In 1970, the U.S. Weather Bureau changed its name to the National Weather Service (NWS), and the ESSA was rebranded as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Later that decade the roll out of Real-time operational forecasts and warnings, using Doppler radar, had become a game changer for the NSSFC. By the end of the 1980’s, the network of advanced Doppler radars, referred to as  NEXRAD (short for ‘Next Generation Weather Radar’), had significantly improved lead times in predicting severe weather events, including ice storms, tornadoes, and flash floods.  In 1995, the NSSFC was renamed the Storm Prediction Center. [For more history on SPC, go here.]

People living in the U.S. understand the destructive powers of tornadoes, especially in the Great Plains region and in Southeast states where many families have storm shelters and emergency kits for such events. Civil defense sirens, as part of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), are sounded in the vicinity of imminent danger when tornado warnings are issued, simultaneously with radio and TV broadcasts, and smartphone alerts. And schools have practice drills designed for tornado preparedness. It is also a significant advantage when a common language–English–is spoken in every state. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2011 almost 80% of U.S. residents, age 5 and older, spoke English “very well” or “well”. It is easier to communicate watches and warnings, and to inform the general public on the hazards and safety measures of tornadoes when one language is predominantly spoken. It also helps to reduce the risk of serious injuries and fatalities from tornadoes and other severe weather events with effective and timely alerts.

The researchers who published Tornadoes in Europe: An underestimated threat understand the need to educate the public on tornado preparedness; and the importance of advancing forecasting products and services. The analysis of the tornado data led them to outline the following conclusions:

  1. Increase awareness of the threat of tornadoes to Europe
  2. Encourage further discussion within and between different European countries to (a) improve monitoring and recording of tornado occurrence, (b) better understand the local environments associated with tornadoes, and (c) eventually lead to the development of forecasting and warning systems
  3. Stimulate the interest of the scientific community
  4. Influence decision-makers to develop tornado preparedness and response programs

In Europe, the logistics of consistent and proficient communication is considerably more challenging since multiple languages and dialects are spoken across 40 plus countries. Notwithstanding some hurdles, the annual number of confirmed and verified tornadoes has been steadily rising. This most likely reflects an increase in the general public’s awareness and due diligence in reporting tornadic activity. For example, despite a well under-reported yearly mean of 50 European tornadoes from 1953 to 2004, the annual average of tornadoes from 2005 to 2014 was 258.

In 2006, Europe confirmed and verified a maximum of 414 tornadoes. The U.S. tallied its most prodigious year of tornadoes in 2004 with 1,817. That is over four times the annual record of tornadoes reported in all of Europe. To put it in perspective: the greatest number of U.S. tornadoes in a single month occurred in April 2011 when 758 twisters left a devastating path of destruction throughout most of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states. This single month record in the U.S. is greater than a recent 3-year total of 747 tornadoes that touched down in Europe from 2013 to 2015.


Although the United States has greater than four times as many tornadoes, Europe has more than twice the number of people living in the continent (742 million) compared with the U.S. population (323 million). There are other factors aside from population density and the likelihood of a tornado touching down: the preparedness of those in harm’s way, the lead time to respond accordingly, the time of day when it hits, the strength (damage potential) of the twister, and the duration and trajectory of the path in relation to people and property.

Tornadoes spawn outside of Europe and the United States. Canada reports as many as 100 tornadoes a year. Australia has up to 25 twisters reported annually. Tornadoes touch down in other countries, but not as frequent. Provided is a table with tornado stats by continent with annual average, percentage, square miles, average frequency per 100,000 square mile, and notes on the concentration of activity. The ‘Tornadoes per Year’ takes into account under-reporting, esp. in Europe where Earth scientists and meteorologists have estimated it to be closer to an average of 300.


Here is a pie chart representing the percentage of tornadoes around the world.


And here is a bar chart illustrating the annual average of tornadoes.


No matter how the data is visually presented, it is clear to see the significant disparity of tornadoes in the United States versus Europe and elsewhere. However, there are regions in every continent, except for Antarctica, that are susceptible to tornadoes. Atmospheric scientists cannot prevent tornadoes from forming. However, meteorologists have a crucial role in predicting these powerful twisters, and in working with local agencies and the media to notify the public when there is a likelihood and presence of severe weather. The United States has mastered the art and science of forecasting tornadoes with a high degree of accuracy, educating the public of its dangers, and issuing warnings in a fast and effective way. It is a blueprint of success for European weather scientists as they endeavor to 1) improve forecasting and to 2) raise public awareness. Eventually, tornadoes will no longer be considered “an underestimated threat” in Europe.



Climate Change and Extreme Weather Go Together


Screenshot: Weather Channel report on November 17, 2016 titled ‘Bizarre Temperatures: North Pole Rises Above Freezing While Parts of Russia Plunge Below -40 Degrees’. Information and arrows added in red for perspective on time and location.

A recent article from Washington Post focused on relatively “super-hot” temperatures near the North Pole. The title read like a hyperbolic announcement: “The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees [in Fahrenheit] warmer than normal as winter descends”. Why not add a couple of exclamation points to emphasize the insanity? Mother Jones also covered the topic in an abbreviated elevator speech version with an equally dire headline: “The North Pole Is Now in a Death Spiral”. LiveScience took a more humorous angle with their title “Santa’s Sweltering: North Pole Soars 36 Degrees Above Normal”. There were other posts covering the same anomaly in the North Pole. The temperature anomaly does not appear to be an exaggeration based on the data graphic WaPo and other sites used, courtesy of Climate Change Institute in partnership with the University of Maine. The global illustration of temperature deviation from normal, generated from Climate Reanalyzer, mainly covers the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. Below is the heat map showing the ‘Temperature Departure from Average on Thursday, November 17th’.

The WaPo article was posted on the same day the data was cited. It is fair to surmise the staff writers and researchers were monitoring the weather anomalies for a few days as they gathered information and resources before publishing the piece. Other sites took a similar approach, albeit less detailed.


Two days earlier on November 15th, Weather Channel meteorologist Ari Sarsalari reported a “crazy thing” going on: the North Pole was above freezing (33.1°F)! [One exclamation point was used to reflect the appropriate tone in Sarsalari’s voice.] The nearest weather station to the North Pole is in Köppen, Greenland. It is a tundra climate located a few degrees south of true north at 83.4°N. By mid-November, the sun does not make an appearance north of 72°N latitude. Even further north, past 80°N latitude, the diurnal temperature range (difference between the daily maximum and minimum temperature) does not deviate much year round, in part, because of minimal to no solar radiation (the faint midnight sun hovers near the horizon during summer months in the northern most region of the Arctic).

Measurements at Köppen only go back 11 years, which coincides with a period of the largest warming trend in the Arctic. The average temperatures would have likely been colder if a minimum 30 years of data was recorded at this station. That said the maximum temperature at Köppen in the past 11 years, from the month of October through April, has not exceeded 27°F. The highest temperature recorded in November, during this span, was 17°F. And the overall average temperature for the penultimate month of the year is -17°F. The Weather Channel report on Nov. 15th confirms the relatively warm and extreme temperature anomaly provided by  Climate Reanalyzer.

For the WaPo piece, Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University professor and Arctic researcher, was asked about the temperature aberration. Francis determined “It’s about 20°C [36 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia.” Sarsalari at the Weather Channel compared the much colder weather conditions in Tugoncani, Russia and in Zhaltyr, Kazakhstan to the relatively warmer area around the North Pole on the same day (Nov. 15th) and time (3PM GMT). The Siberian stations reported anomalously frigid temperatures. In Tugoncani (few degrees south of the Arctic circle, 64°N), it was -40.4°F, which is about 37°F below normal for November (-3°F). In Zhaltyr (upper mid latitudes, 54°N), it was -17.7°F, or approximately 27°F lower than average for the month (9°F).

Unfortunately, WaPo and many of the other sites missed on the opportunity to cover the broadening ramifications of climate change related to ‘weather extremes’; opting instead to cover the aspect of climate change associated with ‘global warming’.

There is no question, based on instrumentation and analysis, that the Earth has been warming at an unprecedented rate since 1980. It coincides with the trending decline in the seasonal expansion and contraction of the Arctic sea ice, as shown in the WaPo article. Francis, at Rutgers University, suggested “The Arctic warmth is the result of a combination of record-low sea-ice extent for this time of year, probably very thin ice, and plenty of warm/moist air from lower latitudes being driven northward by a very wavy jet stream.”


The last part of her explanation is in regards to a more amplified, undulating jet stream (upper air currents near 18,000 ft. rippling in a latitudinal and longitudinal direction), as opposed to more zonal steering currents aloft (mostly flat or little wave action). The “wavy” action in the jet stream would explain the very cold temperatures in Siberia: the upper air roller coaster creates a ridge of unseasonably warm temperatures near Greenland, following a meridional flow that contributes to a polar vortex over North Asia.


Weather data from Nov. 17 (6:00pm GMT): Left side [500mb heights: Higher isohypses (lines of equal height) in red, associated with ridges & warmer temps near surface. Isohypses in blue associated with troughs & colder temps near sfc.] | Right side [Sfc weather with isobars (lines of equal pressure). Close packing of isobars = tight pressure gradient = strong winds.]

Climate scientists and atmospheric researchers have been measuring and analyzing oceanic and weather data for several decades. With the aid of technology, computer models have even been able to calculate global land and water surface temperatures prior to the 18th century. That is significant when you consider the thermometer, instrument for measuring temperature, was invented in the early 1700’s. It was not until the 1820’s when temperature readings were covering at least 20% of the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere. Temperatures had not been officially recorded in the Southern Hemisphere until the early 1840’s in Australia and the late 1840’s in South America.

Simulations and estimates on emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)–also known as ‘Greenhouse Gases’ or GHG–have shown a strong positive correlation corresponding to the trajectory and rise in temperatures. The advent of the Industrial Revolution, followed by an increase in fossil fuel mining, has significantly contributed to the elevated concentrations of GHG. Deforestation also contributes indirectly to an increase in CO2, as there are fewer trees to synthesize carbon dioxide and water vapor as a fuel source for their metabolism and growth.



Unusual and intense hurricane / nor’easter hybrids like “Superstorm” Sandy, the unrelenting drought in California and a flood of relatively biblical proportions in Atacama Desert, Chile (driest and highest plateau in the world) will not be so uncommon in the predictable and unpredictable world of climate change. For example, in the Ural region of Russia there was a trace to a modest accumulation of snow in July 2014 (mildest month of the year). According to the regional chief weather forecaster, you have to go back a century to the last time snow was observed in the middle of summer. In the same area of Siberian, folks had been sunbathing during unseasonably warm temperatures just days before snow fell at higher elevations. Record heat and dry weather in the eastern Urals led to increasing number of wildfires. Western parts of Siberia have been experiencing an uptick in strong summer cold fronts accompanied by large hailstones, flash-flooding, and followed by sharp temperature drops (all which were once considered very rare). Floods, droughts and other extreme weather events are developing / occurring more often and with greater persistence in just about every continent across the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere–it is trending on a global scale. The increase in the variability and magnitude of extreme weather is the greatest and most costly danger of climate change.




Wild weather in New England; hurricane force winds at Mt. Washington



A strong Nor’easter brought snowfall to higher elevations of New England on the weekend of October 22 – 23, 2016. Other parts of southern New England experienced downpours, including thunderstorms, prior to the passage of a cold front associated with the low pressure system. Snow accumulations were reported in upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Over a dozen National Weather Service stations measured at least 6 inches of snow.


The intense storm that brought wet snow to parts of northern New England followed by strong winds, also contributed to 49 consecutive hours of wind gusts in excess of 73 mph recorded at Mt. Washington Observatory from early morning on October 23rd to early morning on October 25th. Sustained wind speed of 74 mph is the lower criterion for a Category 1 hurricane as per the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane wind scale. Additionally, the station’s instrument measured gusts greater than 90 mph for 21 straight hours. Minimum Category 2 hurricane wind speed of 96 mph and greater were registered 16 different occasions during designated observations.  The anemometer, measuring wind speed, even eclipsed 100 mph in 11 of the hourly observations, with a peak gust at 109 mph.

The NWS station in Mount Washington (KMWN), at 6263 ft. above sea level, is notorious for registering strong winds. The official observatory atop of Mt. Washington holds the U.S. record for fastest wind gust measured at 231 mph on April 12, 1934. It was a world record for nearly 62 years until an automatic weather station in Barrow Island, Australia registered a maximum wind speed of 253 mph, as the center of severe tropical Cyclone Olivia passed nearby, on April 10, 1996.

During the two plus days of hurricane force wind gusts at Mt. Washington Observatory, wind chills ranged from -5°F to -18°F. Despite the recent cold snap, the weather station is experiencing the warmest October on record with an average temperature near 40°F.  The average daily temperature for the month of October at the observatory is 27°F. Historically, the wind speed for this month is 35 mph.


References (based on October 2016 observer comments)


Putting into Perspective: Climate Change and Global Warming

I shared my thoughts on the exceptionally cold month of February in the eastern half of the U.S. titled “Bitterly Cold Weather Here; Unseasonably Warm Weather There. Initially, I posted the explanation on Facebook upon being asked by a friend why there was “horribly cold weather in Northeastern and Southern states”.  My brother, who likes to play the role of devil’s advocate, posted this question regarding a quote in the article “Frigid Northeast linked to warming Arctic, Rutgers climate scientist asserts”: Jeff, what do you say to Global Warming deniers who would point to the final paragraph in the article:”…during that ancient period the Earth was several degrees warmer than now and sea levels were several meters higher “? Here was my response:

Not sure what “that ancient period” the climate scientist refers to in the article. With respect to Earth’s geologic timeline, it was considerably warmer about 500 million years ago (by a few degrees Centigrade compared to global temperatures today): the Cambrian period stretched millions of years, as did all distinct geological subdivisions coinciding with the Paleozoic era (~ 542 – 251 m.y.a. ) and Mesozoic era (~251 – 66 m.y.a.).  Human descendants did not evolve until late in the Cenozoic era during the most recent Quaternary period (3 m.y.a. to present day)—a small chunk of change for an orbiting rock over four billion years old.

For hundreds of millions of years our planet has undergone slow geological tectonic shifts. During that time temperatures have steadily vacillated in response to natural climate variability.  Industrialization, modernity and technological advances brought about a change in climate variability connected to human consumption and output, known as the anthropogenic effect.

Weather instrumentation was becoming more widespread in the dawn of the 19th century, mainly in eastern North America, Europe and northern Africa (covering about 10% of Earth’s land mass).  Global temperatures leveled off somewhat by the tail end of the Little Ice Age (mid to late 1800’s) then it slowly rose, on average, from the start of the 20th century until the end of the 1970’s—most recent anomolously cool years occurred in 1976 and 1979. While there continues to be global variability year-to-year , there was a noticeably warmer trend taking place from the 1980’s onward—anomolously warm years were becoming the norm .  Oceanographers have been measuring relatively similar rises in sea temperatures. And earth scientists have been monitoring progressive declines in sea ice coverage and shrinking glacial masses.  The data coincides with a considerable increase in fossil fuel production—taking into account an expected lag effect as the Earth responds to rising rates of anthropogenic-induced CO2 emissions.  Put another way, the rate at which our land mass and sea surface temperatures are rising is unprecedented and not sustainable given the substantial deviation from our planet’s natural climate variability.

I am not suggesting anthropogenic effect is the sole catalyst of climate change.  Gravitational tension from nearby planets influences Earth’s elliptical orbit—similar to the way our moon sways tidal currents.  Solar radiation varies in magnitude: as our sun slowly dies, it emits more massive gamma-ray bursts impacting satellite communications, subterranean plates and long-term weather patterns. Our planet is a living organism, affected by natural and human made forces. The Earth wobbles ever so slightly (24-hour days oscillate by infinitesimal fraction of seconds).  Our planet’s outer shell, its gaseous composition, and global temperatures organically fluctuate—these changes are geologically and climatically gradual over several millennia.  This is in stark contrast to the relatively steep rise in temperatures and extreme weather events that have been observed and empirically recorded over the past few decades. Tossing a snowball in the Senate, during an unseasonably cold February (for much of the Eastern U.S. continent) does not change this fact: the combined global temperature over land and ocean surfaces for February 2015 was the second highest of any February worldwide dating back to 1880.

References: (February 2015) (February 19, 2015) (October 21, 2011)