Severe Weather Awareness:
2016 Season Stats and thoughts about 2017


Here are the stats for Kansas tornadoes in 2016:

Courtesy National Weather Service

If that image is not large enough to read, you may want to download the PDF version to view or print it full size. Tornado Stats (PDF)

Highlights:

The total tornado count for 2016 was 102. This is well above the long-term average, but pretty in-line with the 10-year and 20-year averages. I believe this can be explained by the proliferation of technology in the past 10 to 20 years — more people are able to see and report the brief tornadoes that used to go unreported.

We saw one violent tornado (EF4, May 25th in Ottawa and Dickinson Counties). The cluster of tornadoes around Dodge City (May 24th) is largely responsible for the month of May ending up with nearly triple the number of tornadoes of a normal May — and May is the historically busiest month. May 24th alone produced more tornadoes than the whole month of May does in a normal year.

What does the 2017 season hold?

The only thing I can say with certainty is it’s starting early. While I’ve been part of severe weather coverage in every month of the year, the number of years we’ve had tornado warnings in February is very low. To have had an enhanced risk area (which would have been a high-end Slight Risk in the old system) within 50 miles of Kansas the first week of March is also rare.

However, as the pattern continues to shift north, I think it’s going to expose a potentially more challenging environment. Much of Kansas and Oklahoma is in drought, which reduces the density of crops and grass land. I believe evapotranspiration (essentially, plants sweating) plays a role in boundary layer moisture, a key ingredient in tornado formation. Bottom line, less moisture being released by crops means more has to be pushed into the region from the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf…that’s the other side of the coin. One of the factors in the early-season storms has been much better Gulf moisture further north than normal for this time of year. This has been an unusual winter, with the Gulf never having gotten thoroughly “scoured” (through intrusion of arctic air causing water temperatures to chill significantly). I’m working under the assumption that getting good Gulf moisture will not be a significant issue on days where the storm dynamics cross the plains.

My best feeling at this time is that the season will be a bit further east than last year. The bulk of the season occurred over a few days in May and the majority of it was west of US 183. True, the strongest and costliest tornadoes of the year were in the eastern part of the state, but all my chase days involved a 2 hour or more drive west out of Wichita. I chased the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle and the area around Elkhart for the first time in over five years. The western end of Kansas had very good surface moisture profiles going into mid-spring last year. This year it’s exceptionally dry. That’s the major reason I think the bulk of the severe storm action this year is likely to be central Kansas and the Flint Hills. While dry, there’s just more vegetation in these areas.

In an average year, I’ve had my “shakedown cruise” by March 30th. That’s the first chase of the season, usually into central Oklahoma, where I go out on a marginal day to test all my equipment in the Suburban. Given the pattern thus far, I would not be surprised to do that earlier this year. If I’d had the equipment in the truck a week or so earlier, I might have made a go in eastern Kansas the other day.

I believe the active part of the season will be a couple weeks early…maybe April 15-20 through the end of May instead of May 5-June 20. I’m not strong enough on the meteorology to justify those thoughts, but I’ve learned over the years to trust my instincts on these things. It’ll be interesting to see if my instincts lead me astray this year!

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