Pacific Ocean Temperatures Help Forecasters Predict Tornadoes

Track and severity of tornadoes tied to phases of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Published on: Oct 24, 2013

Weather researchers have long known that temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean have a huge impact on weather patterns around the world.

Now, a University of Missouri researcher has found that Pacific temperatures could help scientists predict the location where tornadoes will occur and even forecast what type of tornadic activity might be in store.

Laurel McCoy, an atmospheric science graduate student at the MU School of Natural Resources, and Tony Lupo, professor and chair of atmospheric science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, surveyed 56,457 tornado-like events from 1950 to 2011. They found that when surface sea temperatures were warmer than average, the U.S. experienced 20.3 percent more tornadoes that were rated EF-2 to EF-5 on the Enhanced Fuijta (EF) scale.

After surveying 56,457 tornado-like events from 1950 to 2011, MU graduate student Laurel McCoy and MU professor Tony Lupo found that the tornadoes that occurred when surface sea temperatures were above average were usually located to the west and north of tornado alley. McCoy also found that when sea surface temperatures were cooler, more tornadoes tracked from southern states, like Alabama, into Tennessee, Illinois and Indiana.
After surveying 56,457 tornado-like events from 1950 to 2011, MU graduate student Laurel McCoy and MU professor Tony Lupo found that the tornadoes that occurred when surface sea temperatures were above average were usually located to the west and north of tornado alley. McCoy also found that when sea surface temperatures were cooler, more tornadoes tracked from southern states, like Alabama, into Tennessee, Illinois and Indiana.

McCoy and Lupo found that the tornadoes that occurred when surface sea temperatures were above average were usually located to the west and north of tornado alley, an area in the Midwestern part of the U.S. that experiences more tornados than any other area. McCoy also found that when sea surface temperatures were cooler, more tornadoes tracked from southern states, like Alabama, into Tennessee, Illinois and Indiana.

While the surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that create El Nino or La Nina conditions are well publicized, surface temperatures elsewhere also have a profound impact on weather patterns.

Tornado-producing storms follow the jet stream

"Differences in sea temperatures influence the route of the jet stream as it passes over the Pacific and, eventually, to the United States," McCoy said. "Tornado-producing storms usually are triggered by, and will follow, the jet stream. This helps explain why we found a rise in the number of tornados and a change in their location when sea temperatures fluctuated."

In the study, McCoy and Lupo examined the relationship between tornadoes and a climate phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. PDO phases, which were discovered in the mid-1990s, are long-term temperature trends that can last up to 30 years. According to NASA scientists, the current PDO phase has just entered into a "cool" state.

"PDO cool phases are characterized by a cool wedge of lower than normal sea-surface ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific and a warm horseshoe pattern of higher than normal sea-surface temperatures extending into the north, west and southern Pacific," McCoy said. "In the warm phase, which lasted from 1977 to 1999, the west Pacific Ocean became cool and the wedge in the east was warm."

In 2011, more than 550 deaths occurred as a result of tornadoes, resulting in more than $28 billion in property damage, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. McCoy says that with her findings, officials may be able to save lives in the future.

"Now that we know the effects of PDO cool and warm phases, weather forecasters have another tool to predict dangerous storms and inform the public of impending weather conditions," McCoy said.

The research will be presented at the National Weather Association Conference this fall.