January tornado number breaks national records

A record-breaking 141 tornadoes ripped through Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee in January, the National Weather Service reported today. More tornadoes occurred on Jan. 21 — a preliminary total of 87 — than on any previous January day on record.

With additional twisters ripping through six other states earlier in January, the preliminary total count for the month is now 163, more than three times as many as the previous monthly record for January of 52 tornados set in 1975, according to Joe Schaefer, director of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in Norman, Okla.

“Any time of year, we hate to see destruction and loss of life,” Schaefer said. “Frankly, we consider this to be a significant number of tornadoes for a March day — the height of tornado season. These numbers in January are unprecedented.”

These tornadoes occurred in January because of an unusual January weather pattern, according to Harold Brooks, meteorologist with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

“The storms were caused by a southerly flow of wind coming from the Gulf of Mexico, which brought in moisture at low levels in the atmosphere combined with a strong upper air pressure wave, which causes wind at about 30,000 feet,” Brooks said. “We usually don’t see this tornado-producing combination until March or April.”

The first tornadoes of 1999 occurred on the first day of the year in Texas and Louisiana. The next day, more tornadoes hit Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, with a total of 18 in just two days. Two additional tornadoes six days later struck Louisiana and Mississippi.

On Jan. 17, deadly tornadoes touched down in three states — Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee — killing 10 people and injuring another 100. The latest outbreak included 104 tornadoes spotted during a three-day period, with most of those occurring on Jan. 21 in Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. During the next two days, 17 additional twisters struck Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The first tornado death this year occurred 40 minutes after midnight on Jan. 2, and the total number of deaths rose to 18 by the end of the month.

Better warnings and longer lead times are the result of NOAA research and the National Weather Service’s modernization program, according to George Wilken, science operations officer with the local forecast office in Little Rock, Ark., that serves the area hit by more than 65 twisters since Jan. 1. In addition, a new Tornado Detection Algorithm (TDA), developed at the National Severe Storms Laboratory and installed in all local forecast offices in November, helped increase warnings, which varied from 20 minutes to five hours during the Arkansas outbreak.

“The TDA provides faster recognition of storms and gives meteorologists a sharper definition of where a tornado might be located,” Wilken said.

Local forecasters use the TDA, a computer program that helps interpret Doppler radar data, in combination with other products and storm spotter reports to determine what is happening and alert the public.

Tight coordination between the Storm Prediction Center and local forecast offices allows everyone to plan ahead and be prepared when a storm hits, Wilken said.

The Storm Prediction Center monitors and forecasts severe and non-severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, winter storms, extreme winds, heavy rain and other hazardous weather phenomena across the continental United States – every hour of the day and night, every day of the year. The Storm Prediction Center issues tornado and severe thunderstorm watches across the nation, and coordinates with forecasters in local National Weather Service offices who are responsible for issuing warnings when severe weather strikes their area.

“Working with the Storm Prediction Center, we started telling the public to watch for severe weather four days before it occurred,” Wilken explained.

All agree these early warnings saved lives during what they describe as an incredible month.

A graphic showing the total number of tornadoes by state is available at http://www.spc.noaa.gov/stats/torn99.gif. A tornado fact sheet is available at http://www.publicaffairs.noaa.gov/grounders/tornfacts99.html. Other sites related to this story include the Storm Prediction Center, http://www.spc.noaa.gov and the National Severe Storms Laboratory, http://www.nssl.noaa.gov.