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The May 2003 Extended Tornado Outbreak

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In May 2003 there was a very destructive extended outbreak of tornadoes across the central and eastern United States. More than a dozen tornadoes struck each day from 3 May to 11 May 2003. This outbreak caused 41 fatalities, 642 injuries, and approximately $829 million dollars of property damage. The outbreak set a record for most tornadoes ever reported in a week (334 between 4–10 May), and strong tornadoes (F2 or greater) occurred in an unbroken sequence of nine straight days. Fortunately, despite this being one of the largest extended outbreaks of tornadoes on record, it did not cause as many fatalities as in the few comparable past outbreaks, due in large measure to the warning efforts of National Weather Service, television, and private-company forecasters and the smaller number of violent (F4–F5) tornadoes. This event was also relatively predictable; the onset of the outbreak was forecast skillfully many days in advance.

An unusually persistent upper-level trough in the intermountain west and sustained low-level southerly winds through the southern Great Plains produced the extended period of tornado-favorable conditions. Three other extended outbreaks in the past 88 years were statistically comparable to this outbreak, and two short-duration events (Palm Sunday 1965 and the 1974 Superoutbreak) were comparable in the overall number of strong tornadoes. An analysis of tornado statistics and environmental conditions indicates that extended outbreaks of this character occur roughly every 10 to 100 years.

NOAA-CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, Colorado

Storm Prediction Center, NWS/NCEP, Norman, Oklahoma

National Severe Storms Laboratory, Norman, Oklahoma

The Weather Channel, Atlanta, Georgia

School of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma

AccuWeather, State College, Pennsylvania

Office of Science and Technology, NOAA/NWS, Silver Spring, Maryland

Supplements A and B to this article are available online (DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-86-4-Hamill-A; DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-86-4-Hamill-B)

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Dr. Thomas M. Hamill, NOAA–CIRES, Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, CO 80305-3328, E-mail: tom.hamill@noaa.gov

In May 2003 there was a very destructive extended outbreak of tornadoes across the central and eastern United States. More than a dozen tornadoes struck each day from 3 May to 11 May 2003. This outbreak caused 41 fatalities, 642 injuries, and approximately $829 million dollars of property damage. The outbreak set a record for most tornadoes ever reported in a week (334 between 4–10 May), and strong tornadoes (F2 or greater) occurred in an unbroken sequence of nine straight days. Fortunately, despite this being one of the largest extended outbreaks of tornadoes on record, it did not cause as many fatalities as in the few comparable past outbreaks, due in large measure to the warning efforts of National Weather Service, television, and private-company forecasters and the smaller number of violent (F4–F5) tornadoes. This event was also relatively predictable; the onset of the outbreak was forecast skillfully many days in advance.

An unusually persistent upper-level trough in the intermountain west and sustained low-level southerly winds through the southern Great Plains produced the extended period of tornado-favorable conditions. Three other extended outbreaks in the past 88 years were statistically comparable to this outbreak, and two short-duration events (Palm Sunday 1965 and the 1974 Superoutbreak) were comparable in the overall number of strong tornadoes. An analysis of tornado statistics and environmental conditions indicates that extended outbreaks of this character occur roughly every 10 to 100 years.

NOAA-CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, Colorado

Storm Prediction Center, NWS/NCEP, Norman, Oklahoma

National Severe Storms Laboratory, Norman, Oklahoma

The Weather Channel, Atlanta, Georgia

School of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma

AccuWeather, State College, Pennsylvania

Office of Science and Technology, NOAA/NWS, Silver Spring, Maryland

Supplements A and B to this article are available online (DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-86-4-Hamill-A; DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-86-4-Hamill-B)

CORRESPONDING AUTHOR: Dr. Thomas M. Hamill, NOAA–CIRES, Climate Diagnostics Center, Boulder, CO 80305-3328, E-mail: tom.hamill@noaa.gov
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