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Ranking of Tornado Outbreaks across the United States and Their Climatological Characteristics

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  • 1 Southeast Regional Climate Center, Department of Geography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • | 2 Climatology Research Laboratory, Department of Geography, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
  • | 3 Southeast Regional Climate Center, Department of Geography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • | 4 Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, Mississippi
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Abstract

The calendar year 2011 was an extraordinary year for tornadoes across the United States, as it marked the second highest annual number of tornadoes since 1950 and was the deadliest tornado year since 1936. Most of the fatalities in 2011 occurred in a series of outbreaks, highlighted by a particularly strong outbreak across the southeastern United States in late April and a series of outbreaks over the Great Plains and Midwest regions in late May, which included a tornado rated as a category 5 event on the enhanced Fujita scale (EF5) that devastated the town of Joplin, Missouri. While most tornado-related fatalities often occur in outbreaks, very few studies have examined the climatological characteristics of outbreaks, particularly those of varying strength. In this study a straightforward metric to assess the strength, or physical magnitude, of tornado outbreaks east of the Rocky Mountains from 1973 to 2010 is developed. This measure of outbreak strength, which integrates the intensity of tornadoes [Fujita (F)/EF-scale rating] over their distance traveled (pathlength), is more highly correlated with injuries and fatalities than other commonly used variables, such as the number of significant tornadoes, and is therefore more reflective of the potential threat of outbreaks to human life. All outbreaks are then ranked according to this metric and their climatological characteristics are examined, with comparisons made to all other tornadoes not associated with outbreaks. The results of the ranking scheme are also compared to those of previous studies, while the strongest outbreaks from 2011 are ranked among other outbreaks in the modern record, including the April 1974 Super Outbreak.

Current affiliation: Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, Mississippi.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Christopher M. Fuhrmann, Southeast Regional Climate Center, Dept. of Geography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Saunders Hall, Campus Box 3220, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3220. E-mail: fuhrmann@unc.edu

Abstract

The calendar year 2011 was an extraordinary year for tornadoes across the United States, as it marked the second highest annual number of tornadoes since 1950 and was the deadliest tornado year since 1936. Most of the fatalities in 2011 occurred in a series of outbreaks, highlighted by a particularly strong outbreak across the southeastern United States in late April and a series of outbreaks over the Great Plains and Midwest regions in late May, which included a tornado rated as a category 5 event on the enhanced Fujita scale (EF5) that devastated the town of Joplin, Missouri. While most tornado-related fatalities often occur in outbreaks, very few studies have examined the climatological characteristics of outbreaks, particularly those of varying strength. In this study a straightforward metric to assess the strength, or physical magnitude, of tornado outbreaks east of the Rocky Mountains from 1973 to 2010 is developed. This measure of outbreak strength, which integrates the intensity of tornadoes [Fujita (F)/EF-scale rating] over their distance traveled (pathlength), is more highly correlated with injuries and fatalities than other commonly used variables, such as the number of significant tornadoes, and is therefore more reflective of the potential threat of outbreaks to human life. All outbreaks are then ranked according to this metric and their climatological characteristics are examined, with comparisons made to all other tornadoes not associated with outbreaks. The results of the ranking scheme are also compared to those of previous studies, while the strongest outbreaks from 2011 are ranked among other outbreaks in the modern record, including the April 1974 Super Outbreak.

Current affiliation: Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, Mississippi.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Christopher M. Fuhrmann, Southeast Regional Climate Center, Dept. of Geography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Saunders Hall, Campus Box 3220, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3220. E-mail: fuhrmann@unc.edu
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