JOPLIN — Prolonged cold this winter has caused a cooling of water in the Gulf of Mexico and is likely to push back the start of the spring storm season in the Midwest, weather forecasters said, followed by a mild summer with ample rainfall.
"We are predicting it will be a little cooler going into the spring and that this summer will be a little milder," Tony Lupo, chairman of the Atmospheric Science Program at MU, told The Joplin Globe. "We'll get the rains that we need. This could be a better summer for agriculture."
So far this year there have been about 50 tornadoes across the U.S., said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Normally there are about 130 tornadoes reported by now, he said.
"We've had one relatively big day so far, and that was on Feb. 20, when we had about 40 tornadoes," he said. "If we hadn't had that, it would be a record low start to the tornado season. That bumped us back up."
Water temperatures are below average in the Gulf of Mexico, a significant source of moisture for severe-weather outbreaks, said John Gagan, senior forecaster with the National Weather Service forecast office at Springfield. Storms should start picking up once the Gulf water has warmed up and "recharged," he said.
"I also think this means we'll have a better chance of hail with storms this spring because mid-level temperatures in the atmosphere will still be cool," he said.
The last time the storm season got off to a slow start was in 2002, when there were 936 tornadoes across the U.S., well below the annual average of 1,200.
"Our tornado activity has been well below normal," Carbin said. "But things can turn around pretty quickly. A couple of severe days in May could change everything."
Last year, 55 people died as the result of tornadoes, he said. That compares with 2011, when Joplin was hit by an EF-5 tornado that killed 161 people and injured more than 1,150 others.
In that year, there were 1,704 tornadoes nationwide, including five other EF-5s — the most powerful twisters with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph. The tornadoes caused record damage in excess of $10 billion, including more than $2 billion in Joplin alone.
Tornadoes and their associated severe thunderstorms account for 57 percent of insured catastrophic losses in the United States each year.