Wally Kennedy: A break from normal coverage for a weather warning

·5 min read

Mar. 28—Imagine that I'm waving a red flag to get your attention. This is a heads-up.

A few months after the 2011 tornado, a question popped into my mind: Is there any connection between the El Nino and La Nina weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean and the occurrence of tornadoes in the Midwest? I did some research. I identified all of the major tornadoes in the previous 10 years in our region and compared them with the El Ninos and La Ninas that had occurred within that same period.

A La Nina is a cooling of the waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific. An El Nino is the opposite. Both play key roles in the weather that occurs over the U.S., influencing the jet stream, temperatures and precipitation — the ingredients for severe weather.

What I found was interesting. The long-lived tornadoes that struck Pierce City, Carl Junction and Stockton in 2003 occurred during a La Nina. The long-lived tornado in 2008 that struck Picher, Oklahoma, before crossing much of central Newton County in Missouri occurred during an El Nino. The Joplin tornado, the deadliest tornado in more than 60 years as well as the costliest on record, occurred during a La Nina. Other tornadoes during that time period suggested a link to La Nina, but my research was so limited I could not draw any clear conclusions.

Some meteorologists and weather specialists — with a lot more letters at the end of their names than mine — asked the same question. What they found was far more convincing evidence of a connection. I am waving a red flag because 2021 is mirroring what happened in 2011.

NOAA's Climate Prediction Center reports that the 2021 La Nina is the strongest since 2011.

So what happened in 2011? In February of that year, the Midwest was hit by a severe cold snap. Joplin was paralyzed by a 17-inch snowfall. Remember that? In February of this year, a cold air outbreak over the central U.S. broke hundreds of records, paralyzing the power grid in Texas. In March of 2011, the South was hit with multiple bouts of tornadoes. That is happening now, though it should be noted that tornado reports, so far this year, are down when compared with previous years.

If the current trend continues, the most active months could lie ahead. More tornadoes were confirmed in April 2011 than in any month on record — 875. New research suggests that the stormy weather of March will shift from the South to the central U.S. by May and then to the northern Plains this summer. It appears that La Nina creates a stronger contrast between air in the South and the air in the North. That contrast makes the jet stream move faster, increasing the flow of humid air from the Gulf of Mexico.

The tornado that struck Joplin was influenced by these large-scale weather patterns, but it was a localized weather event that would create an EF5 that day. An unstable thunderstorm on the west side of Joplin that originated in Southeast Kansas was rammed by a thunderstorm from Northeast Oklahoma. Some firefighters in Northeast Oklahoma saw rotation in that storm before it crossed the state line into Missouri. The experts will tell you that when storms collide, they tend to fall apart. The opposite happened with the Joplin tornado.

It was not like the tornado that struck Picher. The people there saw it coming, got in their cars and evacuated the town, saving countless lives.

The rain-wrapped tornado that hit Joplin formed at our back door and was in our living room before we could get off the sofa. We did not see it coming.

One thing that has not changed that much since 2011 is our radar coverage. Because of the curvature of the Earth, the National Weather Service radar at Springfield can only see the tops of the storms west of Joplin. They cannot see what's happening near the surface.

When the forecast office issued its warning that day, it did not know it was for an EF5 tornado. It was not until five minutes later, when a debris ball high above Joplin was detected by the sweep of radar, that the weather watchers in Springfield knew that Joplin had been hit by a powerful tornado. In that regard, we are still vulnerable.

What has changed since 2011? Well, when a punch to the gut puts you flat on your back, you learn how to defend yourself, and that's what we have done. We are a fortified city now. Our schools, hospitals, churches and homes have been fortified with storm shelters. We have adopted new building codes. Our phones alert us when it's time to take cover. We are far more prepared for a tornado than we were 10 years ago. I think a compelling argument could be made now that Joplin is the safest city of its size in North America.

The probability that Joplin might be hit by an EF5 again is extremely remote. They statistically only happen every other year. But we will face another tornado in our future. Let's just hope that 2021, with its higher-than-normal risk, is not that year.

Virtual ArtWalk

The virtual First Thursday ArtWalk will kick off at 5:30 p.m. Thursday on Facebook. Videos of local musicians the Ozark Bards and Caleb Miller will be featured along with art and interviews featuring Shawn Riley, Dustin Miller, Perscilla Penner, Nina Johnston, Jesse McCormick and Sandy Robinson.

Downtown restaurants and art venues will feature artists for the month. Artists associated with the Local Color Art Gallery will be featured at Club 609. Justin Kidston will be featured at Beast and Barrell, and Andi Snethern's watercolors will be shown at Chaos Brewery. Amber Mintert's mixed media and watercolors will be shown at Urban Art Gallery, and paintings by Brenda Sageng will be featured at the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.

The main event will be PhotoSpiva 2021 at Spiva Center for the Arts.

IF YOU HAVE NEWS about something that's happening on Range Line Road or Main Street, call 417-623-3480, ext. 7250, or send an email to wkennedy@joplinglobe.com.

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