April is the peak of tornado season and is approaching fast for most of the country.
While scientists project 2021 will see more twisters than usual — in part because we remain in a La Niña climate pattern — Florida doesn’t have much to worry about. At least, not yet.
That’s because the tornadoes that spawn in the Sunshine State are a bit different than those in the Midwest and South, according to Florida State University tornado and hurricane researcher James Elsner. Our tornadoes are less powerful, less deadly and form more sporadically, he said. They also can spawn all year long — not just in the springtime.
“We don’t have a pronounced tornado season as they do out in the Plains or deep south,” Elsner said. “Season forecasts just aren’t particularly relevant to Florida.”
The year-long possibility of tornadoes is partly why Florida produces the third-most twisters each year, despite them rarely making national headlines, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows. That included two recent twisters in Pinellas County: On Valentine’s Day and Dec. 16 of last year. The latter was the most powerful tornado to strike Pinellas in 28 years, with an official classification of F2 on the Fujita scale by the National Weather Service. Also known as the Fujita–Pearson scale, that’s how meteorologists rate the intensity of tornadoes according to how much damage they inflict.
But what makes Florida so different than the rest of the country?
Florida’s tornado count is boosted by waterspouts that form off the coast and briefly come on land, Elsner said. Those twisters are often harmless — receiving more hits on social media than they cause damage to property.
There is no true way to predict when Florida could experience tornadoes in advance, Elsner said. The closest thing Florida has is the yearly hurricane season outlook, Elsner said, as they often form on the heels of tropical systems. More hurricanes often means more twisters. The hurricane season runs from May 15 to Nov. 30.
Still, Floridians shouldn’t let their guard down, Elsner said. Tornadoes that form here can still cause significant harm, even if those numbers pale in comparison to states like Tennessee, which had 28 deaths from tornadoes in 2020. By comparison, no Floridians died last year.
Those who live in Pinellas County are especially susceptible to tornadoes, Elsner said. That’s because the county is situated between two bodies of water, which creates a convergence that favors a “sea breeze thunderstorm” that can lead to tornado formation.
As for the rest of the country, Elsner said conditions this time are year are favorable for tornadoes to form. Tornado forecasting itself, however, isn’t as accurate as other severe weather systems such as hurricanes. This is because tornadoes occur on a much smaller scale than hurricanes, Elsener said.
“If you asked me 20 years ago if we could portend what the hurricane season would be like, whether it would be active or not active, I would’ve told you no,” Elsner said. “But we’ve made progress understanding all of the factors. Tornadoes are different — but we’re starting to make some headway into making similar forecasts with some level of skill.”