Tornado and hurricane drought?
It’s no surprise that the recent lack of hurricane landfalls has drawn the attention of the insurance industry. The long-standing Florida hurricane drought ended with hurricane Hermine’s landfall on September 2, and of course, Matthew threatened to end the major U.S. hurricane drought as well. However, there is another drought quietly confounding the insurance industry. After 2011 and reports of a “new normal” for severe weather, several years have now passed with lower than normal tornado activity.
So far the 2016 U.S. tornado count is among the lowest of the last 11 years. As of Nov 27, 981 tornadoes touched down in the U.S., which is 303 less than the 17-year average for that time period.
Tornado counts are below the 17-year average in eight of 10 months so far this year. Most recently, tornadoes in September and October were well below average. This is despite hurricane Hermine, which spawned eight confirmed tornadoes and hurricane Matthew which spawned two confirmed tornadoes. Hurricanes can produce a significant number of tornadoes, but neither Hermine or Matthew produced very many.
This year’s unusually dry tornado spell started in June, which produced only 86, the fewest in that month since 1988. The 17-year average number of tornadoes for June is 216. February, March and August are the only months that featured above-average tornado activity this year.
Had it not been for a concentrated outbreak of 35 tornadoes in Indiana and Ohio on August 24, August would have finished below its 20-year average as well. Though the tornado pace has been slow for the year as a whole, February was an exception. With 138 confirmed tornadoes during the month, it was the second most tornadic February since 1950. Only 2008 produced more February tornadoes: 146 total tornadoes, including the record “Super Tuesday” outbreak of 84 tornadoes.
Through last Monday, November 21, zero tornadoes had been reported this month, which is highly unusual. With an average November tornado tally of 58 (1991-2010), we are in near-record low territory again this month. Only four other years since the 1950’s have witnessed comparably low tornado activity in November (according to NOAA Storm Prediction Center Data): zero tornadoes in 1976, two tornadoes in 1954, and three tornadoes each in 1980 and 2009.
Severe Weather Insured Losses
As one might expect, insured losses from severe weather are often a matter of luck, and although there were some powerful tornados this year, very few impacted large populated areas. Yet despite scant tornado activity, 2016 is already the second costliest severe weather year in recent years, totaling $16.6B in insured loss. This total is far behind the $28B of insured loss experienced in 2011 as a result of several deadly and damaging tornadoes across the southeast U.S. Large insured loss losses this year were likely driven by wind and hail events. In fact, over 80% of U.S. insured loss results from hail and wind events, but luck is an ever-present factor. This year, bad luck settled over the state of Texas. Several hail storms impacted large metropolitan area such as Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso, and these storms have driven the large losses experienced in the U.S this year. In fact, almost half of the total loss of $7.9B so far this year occurred in Texas.
Louisiana was also hit hard by severe weather and flooding, and that bad luck could continue today with a new severe weather threat.
This week’s severe weather threat
Tornadoes happen all year, but climatologically two seasons exhibit peak activity. Spring is prime time for tornado activity. That’s when warm Gulf of Mexico air clashes with winter’s remnant cold as dry air masses spill over the Rockies. Another peak arrives in October and November, but tends to be more erratic throughout fall. In something of a reverse of the spring air migration, jet streams again traverse and target specific parts of the country as the calendar changes from summer to winter.
It’s been over seven weeks since the U.S. has had a day with over 50 severe weather reports, and today this trend may snap due to expected severe weather across the south-central U.S. The HRRR model is forecasting the formation of prefrontal super-cells by mid-day Monday across central and northern Louisiana.
This severe weather threat will continue to move across the southeast U.S. over the next weeks, which in some cases will be welcome given the ongoing drought conditions that triggered recent wildfires.
So although it has been quiet and the U.S is at near near-record low tornado fatalities and low tornadoes counts, we shouldn’t forget what occurred in December of 2015. That December began with a record-low of 10 tornado deaths. Then waves of tornadoes struck the South and the yearly toll jumped to 36. With a more energetic weather pattern ahead, we should stay tuned and remember that droughts won’t last forever.