Seasonal Tornado Forecasts Could Soon be a Reality

Weather researchers are working on a new method they hope will allow emergency responders to prepare weeks ahead of time when tornadoes are likely.

by Silas Allen, The Oklahoman / April 28, 2015
A tornado shelter is all that remains of a severely damaged building after a tornado struck Tushka, Okla., on May 2, 2011. (FEMA News Photo)

(TNS) — When tornadoes like the one that struck Moore last month are imminent, forecasters can often warn residents about them a few days in advance.

But weather researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory and elsewhere are working on a new method they hope will allow emergency responders to prepare weeks ahead of time when tornadoes are likely.

Harold Brooks, senior research scientist at the Norman-based laboratory, said scientists could be a few years away from being able to release seasonal forecasts for tornadoes. Rather than predicting individual outbreaks, those forecasts would predict how likely tornadoes were over the course of a few weeks or an entire season, he said.

“The important experiments have been done,” Brooks said.

Seasonal Forecasts

For years, the National Weather Service has published seasonal forecasts for other weather phenomena, including hurricanes. But unlike hurricanes, the factors that determine whether tornadoes are likely tend to move quickly, making long-term forecasts for tornadoes more difficult, Brooks said.

More recently, researchers have looked at how seasonal temperatures and other trends like El Nino and La Nina weather patterns affect tornadoes, Brooks said. A better understanding of the interaction between those patterns and tornado outbreaks could allow forecasters to make long-term tornado forecasts, he said.

Earlier this year, a group of researchers at Columbia University released an experimental seasonal tornado forecast. That forecast could serve as a prototype for what an official forecast might look like in the future, Brooks said.

Seasonal tornado forecasts could help emergency managers prepare well in advance for periods when tornadoes are more likely, Brooks said. For example, if forecasters predict that tornadoes are likely during a two-week period in April, emergency managers could have more time to get equipment and other resources into place, he said.

Advanced Warning

Advanced warning could also give emergency managers an opportunity to remind residents about tornado safety, Brooks said. Even if tornadoes don’t develop, that’s a good message for residents to hear, especially during tornado season, he said.

“It’s an indirectly good thing, regardless of how good or bad the forecasts are,” he said.

Keli Cain, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said having advanced warning when tornadoes are likely could be useful.

Oklahoma’s tornado seasons can vary drastically from one year to the next — in 2013, Oklahoma saw 82 tornadoes, while last year, only 16 tornadoes touched down in the state, according to the National Weather Service. Advanced warning could help local emergency managers cope with that variability and plan ahead for periods when tornadoes are likely, she said.

Still, Cain said, even when seasonal tornado forecasts become available, it will be important for residents and emergency managers to stay alert to the possibility of severe weather. Especially during storm season, forecasts can change quickly, she said.

“This is, after all, still Oklahoma,” Cain said.

©2015 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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