Don’t panic about those tornado sightings

A waterspout.
A waterspout.
Aramiu/Shutterstock
A waterspout.

Don’t panic about those tornado sightings

It’s probably not the climate; it’s just Instagram.
September 3, 2019

We may not be in Kansas, Toto, but an ominous looking waterspout and a regular old tornado were spotted in Long Island on Monday, to the surprise of many New Yorkers.

These unusual weather sightings may seem like a bad omen, but don’t start running for your basements yet – they’re probably not worth worrying about. The waterspout – a tornado on the water that comes in both dangerous and not-so-dangerous varieties – spotted off of the Fire Island Pines didn’t make contact with land, though a tornado did touch down in Manorville, causing some distress to the area

The tornado was classified as an EF-0 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, or EF Scale, the least-threatening type of tornado, with wind speeds up to 85 miles per hour. In comparison, the most dangerous type of tornado, an EF-5, has wind speeds of 200 miles per hour and up. 

Tornadoes most commonly occur in the middle of the country, mainly affecting South Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado, according to National Geographic. But they appear to be popping up more frequently in New York; four tornadoes have already been spotted in 2019, 13 were spotted in 2018, and 12 were spotted in 2017, according to the Democrat & Chronicle’s New York tornado database. But Dave Radell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in New York, suggests that this apparent increase in tornado sightings has a lot to do with the rise of social media.

“Within the past 10 to 20 years, with the increase in social media, cellphone cameras and things like that, we get more (tornado) reports,” Radell said. “We have more eyes and ears, and technology to help us verify where these things are occuring.”

And unlike other natural disasters, such as hurricanes and forest fires, many scientists are conflicted about whether or not a connection can be drawn between climate change and the occurrence of tornadoes.

“Tornadoes are the kind of extreme event where we have the least confidence in our ability to attribute the odds or characteristics of individual events to an influence of global warming,” Noah Diffenbaugh, an earth system science professor at Stanford University, told The New York Times in 2018. Though Diffenbaugh also said that climate change is likely to “increase the atmospheric environments” – such as thunderstorms – that create tornadoes. 

Radell agreed. “As far as I know, there’s no direct relationship between the number of tornadoes locally and the global climate,” he said of Monday’s twisters.

While tornadoes remain a fairly infrequent occurrence in New York, it’s still wise to heed all tornado warnings and take proper precautions if you see one.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.
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