Calling May 2019 active is just about the biggest understatement you can say. Between the record breaking rainfall and the hundreds of tornado reports over just the last few weeks, it’s been a doozy of a month for nearly half of the U.S. The other half of the country was quieter, but had issues of their own from record heat in parts of the Southeast, to continued snow and unusually chilly temps across the west.
Let’s focus on the tornadoes though that have been plaguing headlines for the last couple of weeks. During a 10-day stretch in fact, the national weather service issued 44 tornado watches and more than 600 tornado warnings as seen in the map above, courtesy of USTornadoes.com. Even for May standards, which is the most active tornadic time period for the U.S. on average, is a bit ridiculous.
It gets even crazier looking at the last 30 days. Patrick Marsh, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, tweeted out that we have entered rare territory. Only 4 other periods on record, since the National Weather Service started tracking tornadoes in the 1950s, has the U.S. experienced a 4 day period where there were at least 500 separate eyewitness reports of tornadoes. Some caution is needed with this stat though, is that not all of these will be confirmed tornadoes and some of these eyewitness reports will end up being from the same tornado.
So does this mean we are seeing more tornadoes on average each year? Well, likely not. If you look at the statistical trends of tornadoes, the strength of those twisters, and how many people they affect, it would look like there is a drastic increase in these rotating columns of air over the last 30 years. But in reality, that’s likely not the case.
Tornado prone areas have seen a drastic rise in population over the last 30 or 40 years, much like the rest of the Lower 48 states. With more people living in these areas, it makes sense that more people would be viewing tornadic thunderstorms. With that drastic rise in population comes the massive increase in infrastructure giving these tornadoes more targets to hit than ever before and therefore, creating more damage. Lastly, with the advent of Wi-Fi and smartphones, storm chasing has become exceedingly popular even for folks that know very little about tornadoes. This can also lead to more tornado sightings. However, just because you CAN storm chase with new technology, doesn’t mean you should. All of these amateur storm chasers have made following these tornadoes far more dangerous for the trained with large car convoys being stuck in the path of oncoming storms because there’s too many people around to be able to get out of the way. This has led to many casualties over the last few years with folks being caught by the storms as well as reckless driving car crashes. Storm chasing should be left to trained meteorologists.
Meanwhile, after all of this, we aren’t that far above average for tornadoes this year. So far, we’ve seen 960 local storm reports (LSR) of tornadoes since the first of the year. That’s roughly 100 above the average for the end of May and above what we’ve seen by this point in the season over the last several years. But still pales in comparison to the very active years of 2008 and 2011 as seen in the graph above.