Storm chase 2011 - Has it been an unusual tornado year? [VIDEO]
Distance travelled ~ 521'206'400 km
(Following on from Henry Margusity's blog - 'Joplin tornado - one of the 10 deadliest on record?', George Kourounis shares his take on 2011's tornado season. George Kourounis Is the first storm chaser to ever be elected into the prestigious Explorers Club, and each spring he guides tornado chasing tours in the central U.S.)
We all have a weather story... Perhaps lightning struck across the street from you or maybe you have vivid memories of that unexpected storm that rumbled through one afternoon and pelted you with hail while you were on your way to Aunt Susan's house. The weather is the one subject that we can all talk to each other about. It's not political, not religious, it affects us all and plays a role in just about every aspect of our lives. It's no wonder that whenever we try to make small-talk with a stranger on an elevator, we invariably lean towards the topic of the day's weather. "Sure is hot out today isn't it?"
Image George Kourounis
I just happen to have more weather stories than most. As a storm chaser for the past 14 years, I've seen a lot of very, VERY bad weather. In fact, I've travelled the world, to all 7 continents and over 40 countries, documenting the most extreme forces of nature from tornado outbreaks in Kansas to the eye of landfalling hurricanes, I even got married on the crater's edge of an exploding volcano in the South Pacific.
Image © George Kourounis
The 2011 Tornado season in the U.S. has been unlike any I've experienced, not only for the record breaking number of tornadoes, but also the fact that many of these storms have struck densely populated urban areas, resulting in tremendous loss of life and widespread destruction.
In April, the deep south states of Mississippi and Alabama were hit hard by powerful, fast moving tornadoes that did incredible damage in places like Tuscaloosa. The peak of tornado season typically arrives in May and the deadly trend continued with Joplin, Missouri taking a direct hit on May 22nd. I chased that storm and our team arrived on the scene about 2 minutes after the tornado had passed and we had to instantly switch from being storm chasers to being first responders as we assisted with injured motorists on the side of the main highway. Others were not so fortunate and a large part of the city was simply leveled in a display of natural power that I've never seen the likes of before.
As the month progressed, another outbreak of tornadoes raked across Oklahoma, causing more devastation and loss of life. In total over 1,500 tornadoes have touched down so far this year with 5 of them being ranked as EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the highest possible rating.
Image © George Kourounis
So what's to blame? How did this all happen?
Currently there is no direct link between climate change and tornado production, but the waning La Nina ocean pattern in the Pacific has caused the jet stream over North America to persist in an orientation that helps develop supercell storm that produce tornadoes. Couple this with the increasing population density that keeps expanding these regions and then add an unfortunate dose of bad luck to the mix and we end up with a tragic season like 2011 has been.
Tornadoes are a naturally occurring phenomenon but they only make the shift from "natural phenomena" to "natural "disasters" when they have a direct impact on communities of people unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of these wicked winds. There is still much to learn and many improvements to be made in the warning systems for these communities and that's part of the reason I'll continue to find myself out there, prowling the great Plains for many more years to come.