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The Decreasing Population Bias in Tornado Reports across the Central Plains

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  • 1 The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida
  • 2 Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia
  • 3 University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida
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Abstract

Tornado–hazard assessment is hampered by a population bias in the available data. Here, the authors demonstrate a way to statistically quantify this bias using the ratio of city to country report densities. The expected report densities come from a model of the number of reports as a function of distance from the nearest city center. On average since 1950, reports near cities with populations of at least 1000 in a 5.5° latitude × 5.5° longitude region centered on Russell, Kansas, exceed those in the country by 70% [54%, 84%; 95% confidence interval (CI)]. The model is applied to 10-yr moving windows to show that the percentage is decreasing with time. Over the most recent period (2002–11), the tornado report density in the city is slightly fewer than 3 reports (100 km2)−1 (100 yr)−1, and this value is statistically indistinguishable from the report density in the country. On average, the population bias is less pronounced for Fujita (F) scale F0 tornadoes, but the bias disappears more quickly over time for the F1 and stronger tornadoes. The authors show evidence that this decline could be related in part to an increase in the number of storm chasers. The population-bias model can enhance the usefulness of the Storm Prediction Center's tornado database and help create more meaningful spatial climatologies.

Corresponding author address: James B. Elsner, The Florida State University, 113 Collegiate Way, Tallahassee, FL 32306. E-mail: jelsner@fsu.edu

This article is included in the Tornado Warning, Preparedness, and Impacts Special Collection.

Abstract

Tornado–hazard assessment is hampered by a population bias in the available data. Here, the authors demonstrate a way to statistically quantify this bias using the ratio of city to country report densities. The expected report densities come from a model of the number of reports as a function of distance from the nearest city center. On average since 1950, reports near cities with populations of at least 1000 in a 5.5° latitude × 5.5° longitude region centered on Russell, Kansas, exceed those in the country by 70% [54%, 84%; 95% confidence interval (CI)]. The model is applied to 10-yr moving windows to show that the percentage is decreasing with time. Over the most recent period (2002–11), the tornado report density in the city is slightly fewer than 3 reports (100 km2)−1 (100 yr)−1, and this value is statistically indistinguishable from the report density in the country. On average, the population bias is less pronounced for Fujita (F) scale F0 tornadoes, but the bias disappears more quickly over time for the F1 and stronger tornadoes. The authors show evidence that this decline could be related in part to an increase in the number of storm chasers. The population-bias model can enhance the usefulness of the Storm Prediction Center's tornado database and help create more meaningful spatial climatologies.

Corresponding author address: James B. Elsner, The Florida State University, 113 Collegiate Way, Tallahassee, FL 32306. E-mail: jelsner@fsu.edu

This article is included in the Tornado Warning, Preparedness, and Impacts Special Collection.

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