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Meteorologists: Warm winter contributed to Midwest tornadoes

Outbreak in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas last week left at least three dead

By Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
Published: March 17, 2024, 12:05pm

This winter’s record warmth provided the key ingredient for a Midwest outbreak of deadly tornadoes and damaging hail that hit parts of the Midwest on Wednesday and Thursday, tornado experts said.

At least three people were killed in Thursday’s tornado outbreak in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas, which came a day after large hail struck Kansas. It’s a bit early, but not unprecedented, for such a tornado outbreak usually associated with May or April, but that’s also because of the hottest winter in both U.S. and global records, meteorologists said.

“In order to get severe storms this far north this time time of year, it’s got to be warm,” said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Victor Gensini.

Tornado recipe

For tornadoes and storms with large hail to form, two key ingredients are needed: wind shear and instability, said Gensini and National Severe Storms Laboratory scientist Harold Brooks.

Wind shear, which is when winds whip around at differing directions and speeds as they rise in altitude, is usually around all winter and much of spring because it’s a function of the normal temperature difference we see across the country, Gensini said.

But instability, that warm and humid air close to the ground that is the signature of summer, is usually missing this time of year, Gensini and Brooks said.

That’s because normally in the winter and early spring, arctic air plunges south, pushing the warm, moist air south into the Gulf of Mexico and leaving dry, stable, cool air in its place, said Matt Elliott, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That stable air keeps tornadoes and large hail from forming.

But not this year. There was only one real arctic blast this winter, and that was two months ago, the meteorologists said.

“When we’re warmer than normal, we tend to get more warm tornadoes in the wintertime,” Brooks said. “It’s not necessarily a causal affect, perhaps they’re both happening because of the same thing.”

Stormy Midwest

Hunter Vance, 27, of Lakeview, Ohio, was talking with a friend on the phone when sirens began to blare. So he sought shelter inside his bathtub for 20 minutes. Then he came out to see the devastation.

He remembers severe weather last year, but not this early.

“And it’s never been worse than this,” he added.

Gensini ticks off five tornado or large outbreaks in the Midwest or Great Lakes area in the past five weeks, which he said is unusual: Wisconsin getting its first-ever February tornado on Feb. 8; 32 tornadoes, including one a quarter-mile from his house on Feb. 27; large hail and a tornado around the Illinois-Iowa border on March 4; large hail and tornadoes on March 13; and the tornadoes on March 14 that killed at least three people in Ohio and hit elsewhere across the Midwest.

Tornado activity this time of year is much more common in the South, with what’s happening “much further north than we normally expect,” Gensini said.

NOAA’s Elliott said it may be a tad early, but this is about the time of year that severe storms start to ramp up in the Midwest.

What happened last week “is really a typical springtime event,” Elliott said.

Even after Thursday, the year is running slightly below normal in terms of number of tornadoes and tornado fatalities, according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center. Before Thursday, tornadoes had killed only two people, far fewer than the 15-year average of a dozen before March 14.