An Empirical Relation between U.S. Tornado Activity and Monthly Environmental Parameters

Tippett, Michael K.; Sobel, Adam H.; Camargo, Suzana J.; Allen, John T.

In previous work the authors demonstrated an empirical relation, in the form of an index, between U.S. monthly tornado activity and monthly averaged environmental parameters. Here a detailed comparison is made between the index and reported tornado activity. The index is a function of two environmental parameters taken from the North American Regional Reanalysis: convective precipitation (cPrcp) and storm relative helicity (SRH). Additional environmental parameters are considered for inclusion in the index, among them convective available potential energy, but their inclusion does not significantly improve the overall climatological performance of the index. The aggregate climatological dependence of reported monthly U.S. tornado numbers on cPrcp and SRH is well described by the index, although it fails to capture nonsupercell and cool season tornadoes. The contributions of the two environmental parameters to the index annual cycle and spatial distribution are examined with the seasonality of cPrcp (maximum during summer) relative to SRH (maximum in winter) accounting for the index peak value in May. The spatial distribution of SRH establishes the central U.S. “tornado alley” of the index, while the spatial distribution of cPrcp enhances index values in the South and Southeast and suppresses them west of the Rockies and over elevation. At the scale of the NOAA climate regions, the largest deficiency of the index climatology occurs over the central region where the index peak in spring is too low and where the late summer drop-off in the reported number of tornadoes is poorly captured. This index deficiency is related to its sensitivity to SRH, and increasing the index sensitivity to SRH improves the representation of the annual cycle in this region. The ability of the index to represent the interannual variability of the monthly number of U.S. tornadoes can be ascribed during most times of the year to interannual variations of cPrcp rather than of SRH. However, both factors are important during the peak spring period. The index shows some skill in representing the interannual variability of monthly tornado numbers at the scale of NOAA climate regions.

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Journal of Climate