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Purdue researchers tracking shift in where tornadoes strike

By David Penticuff - dpenticuff@chronicle-tribune.com

The wet and explosive weather in central Indiana this spring is strange but it looks as if it might be changing.

“It’s very normal to have abnormal weather,” said Ernest Agee, professor of atmospheric science at Purdue University in West Lafayette. “When it’s too abnormal we look for any patterns.”

High pressure and heat in the southeast has been battling it out with cooler weather to the north and west creating storms that have too often caused tornadoes. Meanwhile, farmers have not been able to plant crops as the entire spring produced rain at intervals that never allowed fields to dry.

“The weather pattern got stuck,” Agee said.

But a change is expected.

“We are going to see a little relief,” Agee said.

The first half of this week was dry, which allowed some farmers to plant corn.

Normally corn needs to be planted by June 10 in Indiana to avoid being hurt by frost at the end of the growing season.

The professor agrees these have been strange times, or rather a return to strange times regarding severe weather for Indiana.

The National Weather Service has received 934 tornado reports in the United States so far this year, up from the yearly average of 743 observed tornadoes. More than 500 of those reports came in this month, though the actual number is likely lower because some of the reports probably come from different witnesses who spot the same twister, according to the Associated Press.

Sam Lashley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Syracuse, Indiana, said that researchers are finding the area where most tornadoes strike in the U.S. appears to be changing.

“Research suggests the axis of tornadic activity is shifting eastward,” he said.

That would deliver more of the storms, especially weaker EF1 and EF2 tornadoes, to Indiana.

According to a story from the Purdue News Service, researchers are investigating the killer storms in the southeast. Earlier this year, 23 people were killed by a cluster of tornadoes near the border of Georgia and Alabama.

“Most tornadoes, especially strong ones, are produced by a type of thunderstorm known as a ‘supercell,’” said Dan Dawson, an assistant professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue. “Some evidence suggests that tornadoes in the Southeast, while also often occurring in supercells, are produced more often than elsewhere from non-supercell storms. We hope to learn more about the nature of the formation processes for these tornadoes and how they differ from their supercell counterparts.”

But Agee says the shift in tornadic activity back to Indiana might actually be a return to normal, as the skies overhead had been less violent since the early 2000s.

One change, however, has been a shift to tornadoes happening throughout the year instead of just in spring and summer. Tornadoes in recent years have done damage in central Indiana in November.

There is not enough evidence to conclude that any of these changes are the result of global climate temperature change, he said.