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Health, Science & Environment

Severe weather expected in central Ohio, trends show it's not unusual

Residents of Lakeview, Ohio survey the damage following a severe storm.
Timothy D. Easley
Residents of Lakeview, Ohio survey the damage following a severe storm, Friday, March 15, 2024. Severe storms with suspected tornadoes have damaged homes and businesses in the central United States.

Storm systems threaten central Ohio with severe weather Tuesday. Experts warn of possible tornadoes.

The forecast came just a day before the 50th anniversary of the 1974 super outbreak of E-5 tornados in Ohio, which left a trail of death and destruction across the state.

It's been just over a month since five lower-strength tornadoes ripped through central Ohio at the end of February, and only weeks since an E-3 tornado killed three people in Indian Lake.

The conditions Tuesday until about 8 p.m. could create the right "ingredients" for supercells, said meteorologist John Franks with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. Supercells are clusters of very strong thunderstorms that tend to linger.

"When these storms are able to persist, they will typically strengthen. And that is where we get the worst of our weather. That includes very large hail, significant winds and potential tornadoes," Franks said.

He said the circumstances are similar to the ones that led to the storms in February.

"It's more extreme than we are used to, but this is the time of year for these patterns to evolve over top of the Ohio Valley. It's not uncommon. It's most certainly not unusual," Franks said.

And evidence shows the frequency of this type of storm isn't increasing, even if it seems like it is, according to Dr. Jana Houser, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science at The Ohio State University.

"We roughly see, over the course of that time frame, like the last 32 years or so, we see a kind of pretty even trend, actually, over time," she said.

She looked at tornado frequency over the last three decades. She picked that time frame because tornado tracking was a lot more spotty before the 1990s. Before the 1970s, they were tracked by combing through newspaper reports. When meteorologists began using radar in the 1990s, the data became more accurate.

Without a broader sample base, it's hard to assert what types of trends are forming.

"Long term speaking, it's pretty hard to formalize a sense of an upward trend, especially when we only have like 30 plus years worth of data to follow," Houser said.

That's the same with severe weather trends.

"It follows suit, actually quite nicely, with the tornado trends. You know, kind of generally everything's pretty, pretty level actually. We have some years that are more productive, some years that are less productive," Houser said.

But, storms more frequently hit in populated areas, causing more expensive damage than before.

"Where a lot of people, I think, get this idea of the frequency of these events increasing is the fact that they're actually impacting society differently now than they did 30 years ago," she said.

Severe outbreaks are more likely to strike structures and populated areas because humanity's footprint has grown.

"The number of what are considered billion-dollar disasters that are related to tornadoes or hail or wind, you know, thunderstorm winds, those numbers are going up for sure," Houser said.

As the climate changes, warmer temperatures could lead to more frequent thunderstorms, Houser said. Climate changes could cause trends to migrate geographically.

Dr. Houser said tornadoes are being spotted less frequently in Texas and Oklahoma, and they're increasing over places like Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, and into Indiana and Illinois.

She said Ohio is on the cusp of that trend. But it's still too early to tell whether it is a long-term or short-term trend.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.