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Does warm winter increase chance of tornadoes in Western Massachusetts?

Posted by Dean Curran  April 2, 2012 07:22 AM

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An unusually warm winter and the memory of the June 1st tornadoes raises the question: Is Massachusetts at a greater risk of tornadoes this year?

A number of days this March broke record highs. This past winter was Boston's fourth least-snowy and second warmest meteorological winter on record. November was the warmest recorded for Worcester and the second warmest for Boston. And this past December saw only traces of snow, which has only happened five times before in weather service records.

But weather service meteorologist Bill Simpson does not think that the unseasonably warm winter Massachusetts experienced will have a significant impact on tornadoes in the state.

“At this point we are running four or five degrees higher than normal [this past winter],” Simpson said. “But as we move into the storm season... the temperatures will catch up and stabilize.”

The winter before tornadoes struck Western Massachusetts on June 1, 2011 was not exceptionally warm. From December 2010 to February 2011 temperatures in Massachusetts ranging between 2.6 and 2.9 degrees cooler than normal, according to data provided by the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

The U.S. has already seen brutal tornadoes this year, but many of those could have been exacerbated by forces that may not apply to Massachusetts.

A tornado outbreak on Friday March 2 killed more than three dozen people in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Earlier that week tornadoes struck Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, killing at least a dozen people.

"Friday's tornado outbreak was fueled, in part, by unusually warm, moist air flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico due to the high water temperatures there," said meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground to USA Today.

"This year's unusually mild winter has led to ocean temperatures across the Gulf of Mexico that are approximately 1 degrees C (1.8 degrees F) above average," Masters said.

Going back to the 1800s, this ranks in the top ten highest Gulf temperatures recorded this time of year.

But despite higher temperatures, he says not to jump to conclusions and blame climate change.

"The tornado database going back to 1950 doesn't show any noticeable increasing trend of strong tornadoes in recent decades," he said.

Tornadoes are uncommon but not unheard of in New England. Massachusetts has had on average two tornadoes every year since 1950, when the United States government began documenting them.

But will the warmer Gulf winds that may have contributed to the tornadoes in the South and Midwest affect Massachusetts?

“Probably not because the areas most affected would be central mass and the inflows for those are on land,” said Simpson.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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