Are tornadoes becoming more common in the tri-state area?

Last week's Labor Day tornado on eastern Long Island came as a rude and scary surprise to some. It has indeed been a stormy past few summers. New Jersey saw eight tornadoes touch down in 2019, its most active year in the last 30. In 2018, southeastern New York and southern Connecticut combined to see 12 tornadoes.

When speaking with residents across our area, many simply can't recall as many tornadoes as they've seen in recent years. Is there any merit to this?

The reality is that weak, brief tornadoes have become a fairly common occurrence here across the tri-state area, especially over the last few decades. First, let's break down the overall numbers:

Since 1950, the greater New York City area has seen a total of 153 tornadoes, with the majority spawning in late summer or early fall. 

As far as the strength goes, 122 were classified as F/EF† 0-1, the low end of the scale. Additionally, most were not on the ground for a long period of time.

Keep in mind, this data does not include any waterspouts that are sighted in bodies of water, as records are not kept for these.

The only real statistic that jumps off the page is how many have occurred since 1990 - 89, as opposed to just 64 in the 40 years before that. So those who couldn't recall as many tornadoes decades ago certainly aren't wrong.

So why the recent uptick?

Scientists have confirmed increases in tornado outbreaks in other areas of the country as well, but explaining it all has been challenging. Some have pointed to climate change and a warmer climate leading to more instability or fuel available for storms, but it’s really difficult to know for sure.

The truth of the matter is, we are not yet able to make any sound scientific assumptions for several reasons.

First, our tornado data before 1950 is spotty at best. A larger sample size is needed. Next, consider how the population in areas that used to be sparse or just farmland has significantly increased. Along those same lines, radar technology has come a long way. Some tornadoes last century may have gone undetected. We also now live in an age where handheld video devices are so prevalent. All of this footage can help our local weather office confirm tornadoes, be it of the damage or the storm itself.

All that we can do is wait and see if this trend continues.

†Fujita/Enhanced Fujita scales

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