Weather and Climate Systems

The Relation of Winter Tornado Outbreaks to Large-Scale Climate System Components

Ashton Robinson
OU School of Meteorology

04 December 2013, 1:00 PM

National Weather Center, Room 1313
120 David L. Boren Blvd.
University of Oklahoma
Norman, OK

Winter tornado activity (January–March) between 1950 and 2003 was analyzed to determine the possible effects of the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation on the frequency, location, and strength of tornado outbreaks in the United States. Outbreaks were gauged through analyses of tornadoes occurring on tornado days (a calendar day featuring six or more tornadoes within the contiguous United States) and then stratified according to warm (37 tornado days), cold (51 tornado days), and neutral (74 tornado days) winter ENSO phase. Tornado days were also stratified according to NAO phase (positive, negative, and neutral) as well.

Although significant changes in the frequency of tornado outbreaks were not observed, spatial shifts in tornado activity are observed, primarily as a function of ENSO phase. Historically, the neutral ENSO phase features tornado outbreaks from central Oklahoma and Kansas eastward through the Carolinas. During cold ENSO phases (La Niña), tornado outbreaks typically occur in a zone stretching from southeastern Texas northeastward into Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. Winter tornado activity was mainly limited to areas near the Gulf Coast, including central Florida, during anomalously warm phases (El Niño). Shifts in the intensity of tornado activity were also found as a function of ENSO and particularly NAO phase. Stronger tornadoes with longer path lengths were observed during La Niña and Neutral ENSO events, as well as Positive and Neutral NAO events.

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