FNewcomers expect a tornado in December, not to mention that the tornado is strong enough to collapse the 11-inch-thick concrete walls of Amazon’s massive new warehouse.
But the EF3 tornado that destroyed facilities near Edwardsville last month — one of several tornadoes that caused extensive damage and more than 90 deaths in six states — may herald something imminent.
Although most people associate strong tornado outbreaks with spring, weather experts say that the time and location may change.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 20 years ago, a December tornado (if it occurred) raged across fields and houses from eastern Texas to northern Florida. At that time, there were fewer storms in general, and fewer storms hit the traditional American “tornado alleys”-Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Recent untimely tornadoes tend to land in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky.
Scientists and those studying this phenomenon agree that the tornado is moving eastward.
Harold Brooks wrote in a study on spatial trends of tornadoes in 2018: “The research has identified evidence of’Dixie Alley’, which represents the eastward extension of the traditional’tornado alley’ in the central Great Plains. Brooks studied tornadoes at NOAA’s National Severe Storm Laboratory. He said that St. Louis has one of the most significant tornado history in the United States.
Generally speaking, tornadoes do not occur more frequently-except in December. Professors and experts provided several reasons.
Tornadoes require two main components: warm air and wind that changes rapidly at different levels of the atmosphere, called wind shear. William Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, said that the area where tornadoes broke out recently in December often has windshear, but it is not warm air that causes atmospheric instability. That is when the air bag at the same height is warmer than the surrounding air, causing the bag to rise.
He and his colleagues were shocked by the dew points produced by the recent tornado-causing systems in Memphis and Kentucky. Gallus said the tornado that passed through Iowa on December 15 broke the state’s record for a single-day tornado. The system produced tornadoes in parts of the country where there were no previous December tornadoes.
The link between climate change and the increase in extreme weather seems natural to some people, such as Gallus. He said that a warming planet means an often warming Gulf of Mexico. Disturbances in the rapids can cause and trigger tornadoes—especially in December.
However, others believe that different weather patterns, such as the La Niña phenomenon, cause the humid Midwestern conditions to meet the warmer Southeastern conditions. John Allen, a professor of meteorology at the University of Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, said the La Niña phenomenon can predict severe winter weather and is consistent. The United States is experiencing La Nina weather patterns this winter.
According to the latest complete ten-year data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2010 to 2019, there were 221 December-enhanced tornadoes of Fujita or higher in the United States, compared with 143 from 2000 to 2009. There were only 78 times in the 1990s. Most tornadoes in December are EF2 or lower, which means the storm is weaker, but in the past 20 years, the percentage of strong tornadoes or violent tornadoes has increased from 4% to 10%.
Moreover, in the Midwest and Southeast states, excluding Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas—also known as “Tornado Alley”—the number of tornadoes in December increased to 189, compared with 106. An increase of 78%.
Jana Houser, professor of meteorology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, said NOAA’s tornado data has limitations. Houser said that the first two decades were retroactively recorded using newspaper archives and other reports. Now there are more people witnessing and reporting tornadoes, and more ways to make it easier for them to report.
In 2007, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration changed the rating system for tornadoes, from measuring only the damage after the storm to measuring its intensity, to measuring wind speed and damage. Brooks said this change resulted in inconsistencies in storm intensity levels throughout the data.
In their paper, Brooks and his co-authors pointed out that geographic trends may be the result of techniques that smoothly report in time and space.
Nevertheless, the number of tornadoes continued to rise in December.
In December this year, strong tornadoes hit the Midwest twice. The first aggressive system affected Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky on December 10 and killed 8 people. Strong winds blew the house off the foundation, and an EF3 tornado collapsed part of an Amazon warehouse near Edwardsville, killing and injuring workers trapped under the concrete wall.
At the same time, a tornado from the same system opened a 200-mile path in Kentucky and could break the 100-year ground time record. The city of Mayfield, with a population of about 10,000, was destroyed, trees shattered and electrical wires collapsed. The windows and roof were blown off the buildings still standing. More than 70 people have been declared dead, and the authorities are still working to recover.
Five days later, the second storm system caused hurricane-intensity winds north of southeastern Minnesota and killed a man there when a 40-foot-tall tree blew on him from outside his home. Another person died from a rollover in a semi-trailer in Iowa; the other three died in Kansas, where dust and low visibility caused a car accident.
Gallus said the total number of all affected states reached nearly 90 tornadoes.
On New Year’s Eve in 2010, an EF3 attacked the St. Louis area, razed houses and at least one business, and destroyed electricity poles in Sunset Mountain. The storm continued and caused a tornado to make landfall in North St. Louis, and then into southern Illinois.
“The weather is creepy, just like it is now-warm-except that December is not normal,” said Pat Fribis, now the mayor of Sunset Hills and then a councilman. “We were just shocked.” Fribis remembered seeing the entire outer wall of a house demolished.
“It’s like you are looking at a dollhouse,” she said. No one was injured in the southern community of St. Louis County, but Fribis described the damage as devastating.
Political issues caused by the tornado led Ann McMunn to run for office. She is now the city councillor representing the first district of Sunset Mountain, and recalls the tornado on New Year’s Eve just like yesterday. When a tree fell from the house and the storm razed most of her streets to the ground, she was alone in her three-bedroom house.
She remembered hearing two tornado warnings at first. She ignored them until the third sound. She looked outside and saw the green sky and the rain falling sideways. She called the mother of Schnucks in Crestwood. A few minutes later, she was standing in the basement, and while she was still on the phone, the phone rang.
“For a moment when I was talking to my mother, I couldn’t breathe,” McMonon said. “I said to my mother,’I think it must be on me.'”
In early December 2000, a tornado in Alabama near Tuscaloosa killed 11 people and destroyed the entire shopping center before razing houses to the ground. The storm overturned the vehicle and injured 144 people.
The National Weather Service reported: “Ironically, the tornado dissipated when it entered an empty, uninhabited area.”
Have a plan
To understand how and why the December tornado occurred, more research is needed. However, Gallus explained that collecting data on one of the fastest-changing random weather events is not easy.
“I have to be a trillionaire and cover the entire country with meteorological instruments,” Gallus said. Even so, they may be blown away before a large amount of meaningful data is collected.
Meteorologists can only recommend a few things to those who may be in the path of a non-seasonal cyclone: be prepared, have a plan, and have a safe place to go.
In order to be prepared, residents can build a large number of shelters. For people with bad knees, the space is not necessarily a basement.
Brooks has an above-ground refuge in his residence, the concrete wall is reinforced with steel bars every six inches, and a steel door.
Companies like Amazon can redesign their warehouses to provide enough safe space for all employees.
“It is difficult to reinforce such a large building, but you can build smaller shelters for the entire population,” Brooks said. “In fact, you can make a part of the building truly safe for a very small amount of money.”
By 2021, before the year-end data is collected and cleaned up, Gallus said that according to his statistics reported by weather stations across the country, the number of tornadoes in December has reached 160.
“It is safe to say that this growth will continue in the decade from 2020 to 2029,” Gallus said.
“The weather is creepy, as it is now-warm-and December is not normal. We are just shocked.”
The Mayor of Sunset Hills, Pat Fribis, served as a councilman when the EF3 tornado hit the area on New Year’s Eve in 2010
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