In 2018, for the first time since modern record keeping began in 1950, a violent (EF4-EF5) tornado didn't touchdown anywhere in the United States. But according to a new projection by Accuweather for 2019, residents living within the infamous Tornado Alley shouldn't expect this trend to continue.
"We believe that the more traditional severe weather region of the central and southern Plains will have a higher potential for tornadoes and severe weather more frequently than they have experienced on average the past three years," AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said in a blog post.
While the private weather service's prediction of 1,075 tornadoes for 2019 is below the country's average of nearly 1,200, it's still higher than the totals for 2018 (987) or 2016 (976). In terms of violent weather returning to the central Plains, including Oklahoma, Kansas, and parts of Texas and Nebraska, the meteorologists point to seeding conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We believe warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures over the Gulf of Mexico will lead to increased moisture transport from the Gulf over the region and ultimately a higher frequency of severe weather in these areas," Pastelok said.
Improved warnings, but forecasts still tricky
Accuweather's prediction of where they expect an uptick in the frequency of severe weather capable of spawning tornadoes to impact the U.S. (Photo: Accuweather)
How reliable is Accuweather's prediction? While it's worth looking at conditions and models that might influence storms capable of spawning tornadoes, other meteorologists say long-term forecasts for these tricky forces of nature are still unreliable.
"There’s really no specific way you can say tornado occurrence is going to be higher than the average,” National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Martello told The Star-Telegram. "It’s so contingent on moisture and instability. You just got to let each season play out."
As for advanced warning systems, present technology only provides anywhere from five to 13 minutes notice of an approaching twister. Nonetheless, the ability to quickly reach tens of thousands of people in the path of a tornado thanks to smartphones and other instantaneous means of communication has helped to save lives. In 2018, only 10 fatalities were recorded from tornadoes, the lowest in history.
With supercomputers helping to crunch models, as well as technologies such as sensitive microphones that "listen" for tell-tale signs of a tornado's birth, meteorologists are hopeful they will be able provide as much as an hour of warning for impacted communities in the near future.
"There might be a time where we could warn of a tornado before we could even detect it on radar," Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, told The Atlantic. "It's about getting an even more complete and accurate view of the atmosphere, and then the supercomputing to build models, pushing that boundary of science."