While the year brought flooding and other extreme events, 2016 was one of the quietest years for tornadoes.
This certainly does not mean 2017 will be the same.
The question is: What creates a quiet tornado season?
Look to our warm oceans. The Tropical Pacific was unusually warm during the 2016 season. For tornadoes, this is a good thing. Warm currents and air suppresses tornado activity.
Think of the ocean like a giant bath tub with water sloshing or oscillating back and forth. Not to oversimplify things, but when warmer waters slosh our way, we call it an “El Niño.” (Colder water oscillations are called “ La Niña.”)
In 2016, an El Niño lingered through spring into June, quieting the tornado season down. Traditionally, El Niños have fewer tornadoes.
By mid-November, the season broke all records for the lack of storms. Only 971 storms were reported and, when records were matched and double reports were eliminated, the US had only had 830 tornadoes.
By the middle of November, 2016 had to lowest number of storms ever recorded. SOURCE: NOAA
In fact, this was the quietest year in tornadoes since records started in 1954—and the fifth year in a row that tornado activity has been below average.
El Niño (left) vs. La Niña (right) Tornadoes and Hail Storms
El Niños have fewer tornadoes (top) and hailstorms (bottom) than La Niñas. SOURCE: NOAA
The El Niño ended by June, with La Niña (cooler) waters moving into the Tropical Pacific.
La Niñas are bad news for South Central states, increasing tornado and hailstone activity in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and East Texas, as well as Southern Missouri and Kansas. They also increase the activity in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
However, the good news is that the cold, snowy weather usually brings the tornado season to a close for most of the continent (except the Gulf, which is at lower risk, given La Niña conditions).
So, we hope you enjoyed the extreme lack of tornadoes in 2016. Some weather extremes bring good news!
Let’s see what 2017 brings.