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June 1, 2017
Samuel Childs
Hosted by Russ Schumacher (advisor), Steven Rutledge, Craig Trumbo (Journalism and Media Communication)


Tornadoes that occur during the cold season, defined here as November – February (NDJF), pose many unique societal risks. For example, people can be caught off-guard because in general one does not expect severe weather and tornadoes during winter months. The public can also be unsuspecting of significant weather due to the bustle of major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, when most people are concerned with family activities and not thinking about the weather. Cold-season tornadoes also have a propensity to be nocturnal and occur most frequently in the South and Southeastern U.S., where variable terrain, inadequate resources, and a relatively high mobile home density add additional social vulnerabilities. Over the period 1953–2015 within a study domain of (25-42.5°N, 75-100°W), some 937 people lost their lives as a result of NDJF tornadoes.

Despite this enhanced societal risk for cold-season tornadoes in the South, very little attention has been given to their meteorological characteristics and climate patterns, and public awareness of their potential impacts is lacking. This thesis aims to greatly advance the current state of knowledge of NDJF tornadoes by providing an in-depth investigation from three different science perspectives. First, a climatology of all (E)F1-(E)F5 NDJF tornadoes is developed, spanning the period 1953–2015 and a domain of (25-42.5°N, 75-100°W), in order to assess frequency and spatial changes over time. A large increasing trend in cold-season tornado occurrence is found across much of the Southeastern U.S., with the greatest uptick in Tennessee, while a decreasing trend is found across eastern Oklahoma. Spectral analysis reveals a cyclic pattern of enhanced NDJF counts every 3-7 years, coincident with the known period for ENSO. Indeed, La Nina episodes are found to be correlated with NDJF tornado counts, although a stronger teleconnection correlation exists with the Arctic Oscillation (AO), which explains 25% of the variance in counts. A second perspective focuses on meteorological environments that characterize NDJF tornadoes through use of the NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis. Upon comparing the most tornadic and least tornadic cold seasons, it is found that active seasons are characterized by a large trough in the western U.S.; warm and moist conditions across the Southeast, likely due to an enhanced low-level jet transport from the western Gulf of Mexico; and enhanced 1000-500 hPa wind speed shear. The third perspective addressed in this thesis is that of social science. A case study of four tornado events from November 2016–February 2017, in which a post-event survey is disseminated to NWS meteorologists, broadcast meteorologists, and emergency managers, is carried out to assess strategies and barriers professionals face when communicating cold-season tornado risk and warnings to their respective communities. The survey also aims to shed light on the perceived levels of human preparedness, vulnerability, and resiliency from the professional’s point of view. In addition to unique, case-specific challenges, the professionals expressed major barriers to communication to be inconsistency of messages and graphics, and an inability to give the public information on fine enough temporal and spatial scales. Each decision-making sector noted a high local vulnerability to tornadoes in general, mostly brought on by lack of education and/or resources. However, most professionals perceive their communities to be aware of cold-season tornado risk and thus adequately prepared and resilient when they occur. The survey results also confirm the desire and need for better collaboration among professionals, and with social scientists, in order to adequately educate and warn all sectors of society from tornado risk, especially those during times of year they are not typically expected. Harnessing all three perspectives presented in this study provides a much deeper understanding of NDJF tornadoes and their societal impacts, an understanding that serves to increase public awareness and ultimately save lives.