Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:10 PM GMT on January 10, 2013
The U.S. has set a weather record of the sort we like to see: the longest continuous stretch without a tornado death. We've had 199 days without a tornado fatality, beating the record of 197 straight days that ended on February 28, 1987. The last U.S. tornado death was at Venus in Highlands County, Florida, from an EF-0 tornado associated with Tropical Storm Debby on June 24, 2012. After a horrific 2011 that saw 553 Americans die in tornadoes--the 2nd highest total since 1950--the 2012 tornado season was not far from average for deaths, according to NOAA's Storm Prediction Center. The 2012 tornado death toll was 68, ranking 25th highest since 1950. The average yearly toll between 1950 - 2011 was 91. According to SPC, the total number of tornadoes during 2012 was just 936. This is the first time since 2002 that fewer than 1000 tornadoes have been recorded. The reason for the low tornado total in 2012 was the massive drought that gripped much of Tornado Alley. It's tough to get tornadoes when you're experiencing near-record drought conditions and very few thunderstorms.
Figure 1. June 24, 2012: A tornado spawned by Tropical Storm Debbie crosses Lake Winterset in Winter Haven, Florida. Another tornado from Debbie on this day caused the last tornado death in the U.S., at Venus in Highlands County, Florida. Image credit: wunderphotographer whgator3.
Figure 2. The total number of U.S. tornadoes stronger than EF-0 from 1950 - 2012 does not show a significant long-term trend. However, this database is not very reliable, and we cannot use it to make judgements about how tornadoes may be changing in the long term. Data taken from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Since not all tornadoes from 2012 have been given an EF scale rating yet, the numbers from 2012 are estimated by assuming that the same proportion of EF-0 tornadoes that existed in 2011 also occurred in 2012.
First U.S. tornado of 2013 hits Louisiana
A powerful low pressure system centered over Texas that has dumped over 5" of rain over Southeast Texas and 10" over portions of Louisiana has generated the first U.S. tornado of 2013. The tornado touched down in Plaquemine, Louisiana at 8:35 am CST this morning, when a squall line of severe thunderstorms moved through. Light to moderate roof damage was reported at an industrial plant on Highway 405, about 80 miles west-northwest of New Orleans. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center has portions of Southeast Louisiana, Southern Mississippi, and Southern Alabama in their "Slight Risk" region for severe weather and tornadoes, so hopefully our record streak without a tornado death will not come to an end today.
Figure 3. Radar-estimated precipitation from the past three days from the Lake Charles radar. Over 10" of rain (dark pink colors) is estimated to have fallen over South Central Louisiana.
Earth's extreme weather: no big deal, compared to Venus
Our colleagues at TWC are airing a new series that starts tonight (Thursday) at 9pm EST/8pm CST, called "Deadliest Space Weather." We've put the trailer for tonight's episode on Venus up on the wunderground video section. As I highlighted in my book review of Dr. James Hansen's must-read book, Storms of My Grandchildren, Dr. Hansen argues that Earth's climate may eventually wind up like Venus', with a run-away greenhouse effect: "After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While that is difficult to say based on present information, I've come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty." In tonight's episode of "Deadliest Space Weather", astronomers and planetary scientists will reveal why the climate of Venus went so horribly wrong, why a similar climate may one day descend on the Earth--and what will happen when it gets here.
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