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2008: Record-Setting Tornado Season?

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It’s time for yet another podcast of That Weather Show brought to you by the NOAA Weather Partners in Norman, Oklahoma. I’m Gary Skaggs.

The EF-5 tornado in Parkersburg IA hit the High School on May 25th, 2008. Barry Bahler/FEMA

The EF-5 tornado in Parkersburg IA hit the High School on May 25th, 2008. Barry Bahler/FEMA

2008 could set records for the number of reported tornado outbreaks. Unfortunately, this year is also climbing the charts in tornado-related deaths. From January to mid-June, there have already been one hundred and eighteen fatalities. These tragic numbers are almost double what recent years have produced. Meteorologists, like Greg Carbin at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center, suggest the early start to this unusually turbulent weather may be to blame.

Carbin: There’s the possibility that there’s some linkage, especially in the cool season months – January and February – to La Nina patterns which favor the more amplified jet stream over North America, more large storm systems across the continent. And that lends itself to more thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Other factors include the random nature of tornado occurrences, as well as their location relative to densely populated areas.

Carbin: Most of the fatalities have occurred in towns, Parkersburg and Pitcher being the most recent. There were a number of rural fatalities that occurred during the February outbreak. The bulk of those most likely due to fast moving tornadoes at night and it’s no surprise that many of these fatalities are occurring in mobile homes and we have had a large number of fatalities occur in vehicles this year as well.

Residents of Picher, Oklahoma try to clean up what's left after a powerful tornado struck the small town on May 10, 2008, killing 7 people. Earl Armstrong/FEMA

Residents of Picher, Oklahoma try to clean up what's left after a powerful tornado struck the small town on May 10, 2008, killing 7 people. Earl Armstrong/FEMA

Many are asking if this year’s intense tornado season could related to climate change. Research meteorologist Harold Brooks, at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, studies the connection between thunderstorms and climate.

Brooks: We have some confidence to say that it’s probably not related to global warming and the reasons are fairly straight-forward. One, if we look back over the historical records we don’t really see any relationship between warming temperatures and more tornadoes during the year. A more fundamental reason is that we don’t really have a good expectation of what will happen to tornadoes in a warming world. We know that some of the ingredients that we need for tornadoes will become more intense and more frequently occurring and other will become less frequent and right now it looks like that the balance will be pretty close to what it is now. So we may not see much of a change at all in tornadoes.

This busy tornado season should serve as a reminder that tornadoes can strike anywhere – and at anytime. Our best defense is to monitor the news and listen to NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards for the latest weather updates.  Be prepared to move to safety if weather conditions become threatening.

Thanks for listening to another podcast of That Weather Show brought to you by the NOAA Weather Partners in Norman, Oklahoma.  I’m Gary Skaggs.