New study suggests ocean temperatures could be the key to predicting tornado outbreaks

A new study conducted by Sang-Ki Lee with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests there is a correlation between ocean temperatures and where tornado outbreaks occur. 

Lee began the study after the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak in 2011. That spring tornadoes took the lives of 553 people and causing $28 billion in damages. Scientists at NOAA noticed the extreme outbreak in 2011 coincided with a strong La Niña in the Pacific Ocean and wondered if there was a connection. Lee volunteered to investigate the correlation.

Right now forecasters can predict tornado outbreaks up to seven days in advance. Looking at sea surface temperatures thousands of miles away, as the new study suggest, could extend forecast times to one to three months out, which means potentially saving thousands of lives.


Changes of tornado outbreak by spring ENSO phase and month of greatest impact. (NOAA)

When a two-year La Niña transitions to an El Niño, the probability of tornado outbreaks in the South, particularly in Kansas and Oklahoma, increases up to 50 percent in April. Another study conducted within the research showed that La Niña events persisting into spring could increase U.S. tornado activity, especially over Oklahoma, Arkansas and northern Texas.