January 4, 2005

Record Number of Tornadoes Reported in ’04

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- The bad news: more tornadoes were reported in Kansas and the nation last year than at any time since records have been kept.

The good news: no one died in the Kansas tornadoes, and the national death toll was far below the annual average.

Kansas recorded 124 tornadoes last year, breaking the mark of 116 set in 1991. The state also set a record for most tornadoes in a single month: 66 in May.

There were 1,555 tornadoes recorded in the country through September, according to statistics compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Even without figures for the final three months, that breaks the record set in 1998 by more than 130.

The higher numbers do not necessarily mean more tornadoes are occurring than in the past. Better reporting systems contribute to the record, said Mike Smith, founder and chief executive of WeatherData, a private forecasting service based in Wichita.

"If we had had the radars, the spotters and the warning systems in the 1950s, there are a couple of years -- like '57 or '55 --that it wouldn't surprise me if they had more tornadoes than we have now," Smith said. "But with the revolution in tornado science and detection that started in the early 1970s, it's easier to set a record now.

"The good news is, it's saving lives."

Thirty-five people were killed by tornadoes in the nation last year, less than two-thirds the annual average.

Improvements in technology allow meteorologists to spot rotation in thunderstorms and issue tornado warnings before a funnel forms. Networks of trained storm spotters and a higher number of "storm chasers" confirm if a funnel cloud has reached the ground.

"If it touches down for 10 seconds, it gets reported, whereas that never happened 50 years ago," Smith said.

In Kansas last year, the southeast quarter of the state - 26 counties that include Wichita - reported 53 tornadoes. That's the annual average for the entire state.

Until May rolled around, 2004 was most notable for how few tornadoes were reported.

"It was quiet -- that was kind of unnerving and strange," Wichita weather researcher Jon Davies said. "You're thinking it's such a quiet start to things, it's likely not going to be much of a season, and then everything cuts loose."

Then, the jet stream shifted to create ideal conditions for the formation of the supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes.

"It's like someone almost flipped a switch there by mid-May," Davies said.


Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.wichitaeagle.com