December 15, 2021 | View PDF
On Saturday I was alarmed to read about Friday night’s deadly tornado outbreak.
While tornadoes can and do take place every month of the year in the U.S., December is not a month we usually associate with large, long-track tornadoes. Yet, as I write this on Saturday afternoon, the death toll continues to climb as rescue and search teams clear away rubble looking for possible survivors.
Officials expect a final death toll well in excess of 100 people.
December is usually the slowest month for tornado activity in the U.S. with an average of 23, most of them in the South. According to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center, the average number of December tornadoes from 1989 to 2013 in Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee, where multiple fatalities occurred on Friday, is zero. While the nature of preparedness means always being ready for the unexpected, one could understand why, based on historical weather data, some people were caught off guard by Friday’s twisters.
The time of year likely contributed to the death toll. A candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, is reported to have had 110 workers inside when a tornado collapsed the roof. Only 40 had been accounted for by noon on Saturday. Production was brisk with round-the-clock shifts before the tornado, which is understandable considering seasonal demand for candles.
An Amazon warehouse near Edwardsville, Illinois, was busy meeting holiday orders when a tornado collapsed its roof Friday evening. Between 50 and 100 workers were thought to be inside at the time, and information was still coming in about their fate when I wrote this piece.
Friday’s tornadoes touched down in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas ahead of the same weather system that produced snow across the Nebraska Panhandle.
As the snow fell in the storm’s cold sector behind a cold front, warm and moist air was pulled north across the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys ahead of the front on Friday. Combined with ample support in the upper atmosphere, these conditions spawned thunderstorms that formed into a squall line hundreds of miles long, which marched east into the evening and spawned the deadly tornadoes.
A number of factors go into evaluating the strength of tornadoes. Among these are reports from surface weather stations and storm spotters, wind velocities measured by Doppler radars, and the kinds of damage caused. As of Saturday afternoon, meteorologists were estimating the tornadoes responsible for the deaths and damage on Friday were in the EF4 and EF5 class on the Enhanced Fujita Scale used to measure tornado intensity. The scale runs from EF0 to EF5. New Doppler radars are able to see debris fields inside tornadoes as they suck material upward into the parent cloud. One such radar tracking the Mayfield twister detected storm debris more than 30,000 ft. above the ground Friday evening, which may be a new record.
In coming days we’ll hear finger pointing, claims that global warming and climate change caused this, and likely political posturing over what was, based on statistics, a freak and rare weather event. Rather than engage in the bluster, let us pray for the victims and their families, and look for ways to help these devastated communities unfortunate enough to have this happen to them so close to Christmas.