Although 2018 was a deadly and devastating year for wildfires, floods and hurricanes, one weather phenomenon was remarkably absent from the news: Tornadoes.
Both the number of Americans killed by tornadoes – and the number of violent tornadoes in the U.S. – set record lows that have stood for decades.
Tornadoes only killed 10 Americans in 2018, the fewest since unofficial records began in 1875 during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. The previous record low year for tornado deaths was 1910, when only 12 people died, according to data from NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory.
In an “average” year, 69 people are killed by tornadoes in the U.S., the Weather Channel said. Tornado death tolls can fluctuate wildly year to year. Just seven years ago, tornadoes killed 553 Americans, mostly in horrific outbreaks in Alabama and Missouri.
And for the first time since official records began in 1950, there were no “violent” tornadoes in 2018 in the United States, according to NOAA. Violent tornadoes are those with estimated wind speeds of 166 mph or higher — EF4 or EF5 twisters on the Enhanced Fujita Scale of Tornado Intensity.
(Though “official” tornado records only go back to 1950, there are incomplete records that go back to the 1870s.)
The previous year for fewest violent tornadoes was in 2005, when only one was reported, the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang said.
Oddly, North America’s strongest tornado of 2018 was in Canada, where an EF4 tornado touched down in Manitoba on Aug. 10, according to the Weather Channel.
“The causes for 2018′s lack of violent tornadoes are many, but one key factor is high pressure tending to be more dominant than normal throughout peak season this past spring,” Capital Weather Gang forecaster Ian Livingston said. High atmospheric pressure typically brings clear skies and fewer clouds and storms.
“This was particularly so during April and May, when tornado numbers were below to well below normal,” Livingston said.
Spring is the time of year when the ingredients for severe weather typically come together.
In addition, warm, humid air is one of the ingredients needed for tornadoes to form, and for much of the early part of the year, it was lacking in the central United States, AccuWeather said.
Better warnings also likely played a role in the lack deaths in 2018. In July, when commenting on the quiet tornado season, NOAA spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the lack of tornado deaths is only partly due to fewer tornadoes.
“Accurate and timely watches and warnings – including cellphone alerts – supported in part by improved radar technology play a major role in saving lives throughout the tornado season,” he said.
Looking ahead to 2019, forecasters can’t predict the severity of the tornado season this far out, AccuWeather. “There is no way to forecast the annual number of tornadoes, and they do fluctuate a great deal from year to year,” meteorologist Mike Smith, formerly of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, said in 2016.