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Ryan Lagerquist, John T. Allen, and Amy McGovern

Abstract

This paper describes the development and analysis of an objective climatology of warm and cold fronts over North America from 1979 to 2018. Fronts are detected by a convolutional neural network (CNN), trained to emulate fronts drawn by human meteorologists. Predictors for the CNN are surface and 850-hPa fields of temperature, specific humidity, and vector wind from the ERA5 reanalysis. Gridded probabilities from the CNN are converted to 2D frontal regions, which are used to create the climatology. Overall, warm and cold fronts are most common in the Pacific and Atlantic cyclone tracks and the lee of the Rockies. In contrast with prior research, we find that the activity of warm and cold fronts is significantly modulated by the phase and intensity of El Niño–Southern Oscillation. The influence of El Niño is significant for winter warm fronts, winter cold fronts, and spring cold fronts, with activity decreasing over the continental United States and shifting northward with the Pacific and Atlantic cyclone tracks. Long-term trends are generally not significant, although we find a poleward shift in frontal activity during the winter and spring, consistent with prior research. We also identify a number of regional patterns, such as a significant long-term increase in warm fronts in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, which are characterized almost entirely by moisture gradients rather than temperature gradients.

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Cameron J. Nixon and John T. Allen

Abstract

The paths of tornadoes have long been a subject of fascination since the meticulously drawn damage tracks by Dr. Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita. Though uncommon, some tornadoes have been noted to take sudden left turns from their previous path. This has the potential to present an extreme challenge to warning lead time, and the spread of timely, accurate information to broadcasters and emergency managers. While a few hypotheses exist as to why tornadoes deviate, none have been tested for their potential use in operational forecasting and nowcasting. As a result, such deviations go largely unanticipated by forecasters. A sample of 102 leftward deviant tornadic low-level mesocyclones was tracked via WSR-88D and assessed for their potential predictability. A simple hodograph technique is presented that shows promising skill in predicting the motion of deviant tornadoes, which, upon “occlusion,” detach from the parent storm’s updraft centroid and advect leftward or rearward by the low-level wind. This metric, a vector average of the parent storm motion and the mean wind in the lowest half-kilometer, proves effective at anticipating deviant tornado motion with a median error of less than 6 kt (1 kt ≈ 0.51 m s−1). With over 25% of analyzed low-level mesocyclones deviating completely out of the tornado warning polygon issued by their respective National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, the adoption of this new technique could improve warning performance. Furthermore, with over 35% of tornadoes becoming “deviant” almost immediately upon formation, the ability to anticipate such events may inspire a new paradigm for tornado warnings that, when covering unpredictable behavior, are proactive instead of reactive.

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Maria J. Molina and John T. Allen

Abstract

Tornadic thunderstorms rely on the availability of sufficient low-level moisture, but the source regions of that moisture have not been explicitly demarcated. Using the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory HYSPLIT model and a Lagrangian-based diagnostic, moisture attribution was conducted to identify the moisture source regions of tornadic convection. This study reveals a seasonal cycle in the origins and advection patterns of water vapor contributing to winter and spring tornado-producing storms (1981–2017). The Gulf of Mexico is shown to be the predominant source of moisture during both winter and spring, making up more than 50% of all contributions. During winter, substantial moisture contributions for tornadic convection also emanate from the western Caribbean Sea (>19%) and North Atlantic Ocean (>12%). During late spring, land areas (e.g., soil and vegetation) of the contiguous United States (CONUS) play a more influential role (>24%). Moisture attribution was also conducted for nontornadic cases and tornado outbreaks. Findings show that moisture sources of nontornadic events are more proximal to the CONUS than moisture sources of tornado outbreaks. Oceanic influences on the water vapor content of air parcels were also explored to determine if they can increase the likelihood of an air mass attaining moisture that will eventually contribute to severe thunderstorms. Warmer sea surface temperatures were generally found to enhance evaporative fluxes of overlying air parcels. The influence of atmospheric features on synoptic-scale moisture advection was also analyzed; stronger extratropical cyclones and Great Plains low-level jet occurrences lead to increased meridional moisture flux.

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Cameron J. Nixon and John T. Allen

Hodographs are valuable sources of pattern recognition in severe convective storm forecasting. Certain shapes are known to discriminate between single cell, multicell, and supercell storm organization. Various derived quantities such as storm-relative helicity (SRH) have been found to predict tornado potential and intensity. Over the years, collective research has established a conceptual model for tornadic hodographs (large and “looping”, with high SRH). However, considerably less attention has been given to constructing a similar conceptual model for hodographs of severe hail. This study explores how hodograph shape may differentiate between the environments of severe hail and tornadoes. While supercells are routinely assumed to carry the potential to produce all hazards, this is not always the case, and we explore why. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) storm mode dataset is used to assess the environments of 8,958 tornadoes and 7,256 severe hail reports, produced by right- and left-moving supercells. Composite hodographs and indices to quantify wind shear are assessed for each hazard, and clear differences are found between the kinematic environments of hail-producing and tornadic supercells. The sensitivity of the hodograph to common thermodynamic variables was also examined, with buoyancy and moisture found to influence the shape associated with the hazards. The results suggest that differentiating between tornadic and hail-producing storms may be possible using properties of the hodograph alone. While anticipating hail size does not appear possible using only the hodograph, anticipating tornado intensity appears readily so. When coupled with buoyancy profiles, the hodograph may assist in differentiating between both hail size and tornado intensity.

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John T. Allen, Edwina R. Allen, Harald Richter, and Chiara Lepore

Abstract

During 2013, multiple tornadoes occurred across Australia, leading to 147 injuries and considerable damage. This prompted speculation as to the frequency of these events in Australia, and whether 2013 constituted a record year. Leveraging media reports, public accounts, and the Bureau of Meteorology observational record, 69 tornadoes were identified for the year in comparison to the official count of 37 events. This identified set and the existing historical record were used to establish that, in terms of spatial distribution, 2013 was not abnormal relative to the existing climatology, but numerically exceeded any year in the bureau’s record. Evaluation of the environments in which these tornadoes formed illustrated that these conditions included tornado environments found elsewhere globally, but generally had a stronger dependence on shear magnitude than direction, and lower lifting condensation levels. Relative to local environment climatology, 2013 was also not anomalous. These results illustrate a range of tornadoes associated with cool season, tropical cyclone, east coast low, supercell tornado, and low shear/storm merger environments. Using this baseline, the spatial climatology from 1980 to 2019 as derived from the nonconditional frequency of favorable significant tornado parameter environments for the year is used to highlight that observations are likely an underestimation. Applying the results, discussion is made of the need to expand observing practices, climatology, forecasting guidelines for operational prediction, and improve the warning system. This highlights a need to ensure that the general public is appropriately informed of the tornado hazard in Australia, and provide them with the understanding to respond accordingly.

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John T. Allen, Alexandre B. Pezza, and Mitchell T. Black

Abstract

A global climatology for rapid cyclone intensification has been produced from the second NCEP reanalysis (NCEP2), the 25-yr Japanese Reanalysis (JRA-25), and the ECMWF reanalyses over the period 1979–2008. An improved (combined) criterion for identifying explosive cyclones has been developed based on preexisting definitions, offering a more balanced, normalized climatological distribution. The combined definition was found to significantly alter the population of explosive cyclones, with a reduction in “artificial” systems, which are found to compose 20% of the population determined by earlier definitions. Seasonally, winter was found to be the dominant formative period in both hemispheres, with a lower degree of interseasonal variability in the Southern Hemisphere (SH). Considered over the period 1979–2008, little change is observed in the frequency of systems outside of natural interannual variability in either hemisphere. Significant statistical differences have been found between reanalyses in the SH, while in contrast the Northern Hemisphere (NH) was characterized by strong positive correlations between reanalyses in almost all examined cases. Spatially, explosive cyclones are distributed into several distinct regions, with two regions in the northwest Pacific and the North Atlantic in the NH and three main regions in the SH. High-resolution and modern reanalysis data were also found to increase the climatology population of rapidly intensifying systems. This indicates that the reanalyses have apparently undergone increasing improvements in consistency over time, particularly in the SH.

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Samuel J. Childs, Russ S. Schumacher, and John T. Allen

Abstract

Tornadoes that occur during the cold season, defined here as November–February (NDJF), pose many societal risks, yet less attention has been given to their climatological trends and variability than their warm-season counterparts, and their meteorological environments have been studied relatively recently. This study aims to advance the current state of knowledge of cold-season tornadoes through analysis of these components. A climatology of all (E)F1–(E)F5 NDJF tornadoes from 1953 to 2015 across a domain of 25°–42.5°N, 75°–100°W was developed. An increasing trend in cold-season tornado occurrence was found across much of the southeastern United States, with a bull’s-eye in western Tennessee, while a decreasing trend was found across eastern Oklahoma. Spectral analysis reveals a cyclic pattern of enhanced NDJF counts every 3–7 years, coincident with the period of ENSO. La Niña episodes favor enhanced NDJF counts, but a stronger relationship was found with the Arctic Oscillation (AO). From a meteorological standpoint, the most-tornadic and least-tornadic NDJF seasons were compared using NCEP–NCAR reanalysis data of various severe weather and tornado parameters. The most-tornadic cold seasons are characterized by warm and moist conditions across the Southeast, with an anomalous mean trough across the western United States. In addition, analysis of the convective mode reveals that NDJF tornadoes are common in both discrete and linear storm modes, yet those associated with discrete supercells are more deadly. Taken together, the perspectives presented here provide a deeper understanding of NDJF tornadoes and their societal impacts, an understanding that serves to increase public awareness and reduce human casualty.

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John T. Allen, David J. Karoly, and Kevin J. Walsh

Abstract

The influence of a warming climate on the occurrence of severe thunderstorm environments in Australia was explored using two global climate models: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Mark, version 3.6 (CSIRO Mk3.6), and the Cubic-Conformal Atmospheric Model (CCAM). These models have previously been evaluated and found to be capable of reproducing a useful climatology for the twentieth-century period (1980–2000). Analyzing the changes between the historical period and high warming climate scenarios for the period 2079–99 has allowed estimation of the potential convective future for the continent. Based on these simulations, significant increases to the frequency of severe thunderstorm environments will likely occur for northern and eastern Australia in a warmed climate. This change is a response to increasing convective available potential energy from higher continental moisture, particularly in proximity to warm sea surface temperatures. Despite decreases to the frequency of environments with high vertical wind shear, it appears unlikely that this will offset increases to thermodynamic energy. The change is most pronounced during the peak of the convective season, increasing its length and the frequency of severe thunderstorm environments therein, particularly over the eastern parts of the continent. The implications of this potential increase are significant, with the overall frequency of potential severe thunderstorm days per year likely to rise over the major population centers of the east coast by 14% for Brisbane, 22% for Melbourne, and 30% for Sydney. The limitations of this approach are then discussed in the context of ways to increase the confidence of predictions of future severe convection.

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Maria J. Molina, John T. Allen, and Andreas F. Prein

Abstract

The tornado outbreak of 21–23 January 2017 caused 20 fatalities, more than 200 injuries, and over a billion dollars in damage in the Southeast United States. The event occurred concurrently with a record-breaking warm Gulf of Mexico (GoM) basin. This article explores the influence that warm GoM sea surface temperatures (SSTs) had on the tornado outbreak. Backward trajectory analysis, combined with a Lagrangian-based moisture-attribution algorithm, reveals that the tornado outbreak’s moisture predominantly originated from the southeast GoM and the northwest Caribbean Sea. We used the WRF Model to generate a control simulation of the event and explore the response to perturbed SSTs. With the aid of a tornadic storm proxy derived from updraft helicity, we show that the 21–23 January 2017 tornado outbreak exhibits sensitivity to upstream SSTs during the first day of the event. Warmer SSTs across remote moisture sources and adjacent waters increase tornado frequency, in contrast to cooler SSTs, which reduce tornado activity. Upstream SST sensitivity is reduced once convection is ongoing and modifying local moisture and instability availability. Our results highlight the importance of air–sea interactions before airmass advection toward the continental United States. The complex and nonlinear nature of the relationship between upstream SSTs and local precursor environments is also discussed.

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Maria J. Molina, John T. Allen, and Vittorio A. Gensini

Abstract

El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) influence winter tornado variability and significant tornado (EF2+, where EF is the enhanced Fujita scale) environments. Increases occur in the probability of a significant tornado environment from the southern Great Plains to the Midwest during La Niña, and across the southern contiguous United States (CONUS) during El Niño. Winter significant tornado environments are absent across Florida, Georgia, and the coastal Carolinas during moderate-to-strong La Niña events. Jet stream modulation by ENSO contributes to higher tornado totals during El Niño in December and La Niña in January, especially when simultaneous with a warm GoM. ENSO-neutral phases yield fewer and weaker tornadoes, but proximity to warm GoM climate features can enhance the probability of a significant tornado environment. ENSO intensity matters; stronger ENSO phases generate increases in tornado frequency and the probability of a significant tornado environment, but are characterized by large variance, in which very strong El Niño and La Niña events can produce unfavorable tornado climatological states. This study suggests that it is a feasible undertaking to expand spring seasonal and subseasonal tornado prediction efforts to encompass the winter season, which is of importance given the notable threat posed by winter tornadoes. Significant tornadoes account for 95% of tornado fatalities and winter tornadoes are rated significant more frequently than during other seasons.

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