Are tornadoes becoming more common on Long Island?
Last week's Labor Day tornado in eastern Suffolk
came as a rude and scary surprise to some Long Islanders. When speaking with residents, many simply can't recall as many tornadoes as they've seen in recent years. Is there any merit to this?
Long Island hadn't yet seen a tornado in 2019, but a few storms caused widespread straight-line wind damage. The winds (also known as downbursts) are often mistaken for tornadoes due to the extent of damage, but they can cause just as much if not more than tornadoes.
When looking at recent history, we find that weak, brief tornadoes have become a fairly common occurrence here on Long Island, especially over the last few decades. First, let's break down the overall numbers:
Since 1950, Nassau and Suffolk have seen a combined 34 tornadoes, which amounts to about one every other year. Of those, the overwhelming majority (21) spawned in late summer. Furthermore, Suffolk has also seen well more than Nassau (26 to 8), though that could just be in part to its significantly larger size.
As far as the strength goes, 28 were classified as F/EF† 0-1, the low end of the scale. Additionally, many of these 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 the ocean, Sound, or bays, as records are not kept for these.
The only real statistic that jumps off the page is how many of those have come since 1990 - 23, as opposed to just 11 in the 40 years before that. So those who don't recall local tornadoes being a semi-frequent occurrence aren't far off.
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