Influence of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation on tornado and hail frequency in the United States

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
Volume:
8,
Pages:
278–283
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/ngeo2385
Received
Accepted
Published online

The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is characterized by changes in sea surface temperature (SST) and atmospheric convection in the tropical Pacific, and modulates global weather and climate1, 2, 3, 4. The phase of ENSO influences United States (US) temperature and precipitation and has long been hypothesized to influence severe thunderstorm occurrence over the US5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. However, limitations12 of the severe thunderstorm observational record, combined with large year-to-year variability12, 13, have made it difficult to demonstrate an ENSO influence during the peak spring season. Here we use environmental indices14, 15, 16 that are correlated with tornado and hail activity, and show that ENSO modulates tornado and hail occurrence during the winter and spring by altering the large-scale environment. We show that fewer tornadoes and hail events occur over the central US during El Niño and conversely more occur during La Niña conditions. Moreover, winter ENSO conditions often persist into early spring, and consequently the winter ENSO state can be used to predict changes in tornado and hail frequency during the following spring. Combined with our current ability to predict ENSO several months in advance17, our findings provide a basis for long-range seasonal prediction of severe thunderstorm activity.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Composite mean anomalies of winter (December, January, February) hail and tornadoes conditioned on the winter ENSO state.
    Figure 1: Composite mean anomalies of winter (December, January, February) hail and tornadoes conditioned on the winter ENSO state.

    ah, DJF anomalies are shown for the El Niño and La Niña states determined using simultaneous ONI for the hail index (a,c), tornado index (b,d), hail events (e,g) and tornadoes (f,h). Statistical significance (stippled) is indicated where a grid point passes the two-tailed 95th percentile. The results are from a 10,000-sample Monte Carlo simulation permutation test from the 34 years, with events chosen to produce a distribution of differences between the mean of ENSO phase composite seasons and the mean climatology of all remaining seasons.

  2. Composite mean anomalies of spring (March, April, May) hail and tornadoes conditioned on the spring ENSO state.
    Figure 2: Composite mean anomalies of spring (March, April, May) hail and tornadoes conditioned on the spring ENSO state.

    ah, MAM anomalies are shown for the El Niño and La Niña states determined using simultaneous ONI for the hail index (a,c), tornado index (b,d), hail events (e,g) and tornadoes (f,h). Statistical significance (stippled) is indicated as for Fig. 1.

  3. Mean spring environmental composite anomalies for upper level and surface winds, and for convective available potential energy by ENSO state.
    Figure 3: Mean spring environmental composite anomalies for upper level and surface winds, and for convective available potential energy by ENSO state.

    af, MAM anomalies are shown for 300 hPa wind (a,b), 10 m wind (c,d) and 180 mb MLCAPE (e,f) for El Niño and La Niña anomaly composites based on simultaneous ONI. Significance (stippling) is shown as for Fig. 1. Arrows show mean vector anomalies of 300 hPa and 10 m winds respectively.

  4. Spring occurrence relative to climatology for the forecast box, and probability of climatological frequency by winter ENSO state.
    Figure 4: Spring occurrence relative to climatology for the forecast box, and probability of climatological frequency by winter ENSO state.

    a, Seasonal total index for hail and tornadoes, observed hail and tornado events against the preceding DJF seasonal ONI for a box (100°–90° W and 31°–36° N; Supplementary Fig. 3). Red shapes indicate the seven El Niño composite years and blue corresponds to the six La Niña years. b, Probability of an above normal (light blue), near normal (grey) or below normal (pink) climatological frequency of the hail index (solid) and tornado index (dashed), for varying ONI as determined using the ELRs.

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Affiliations

  1. International Research Institute for Climate and Society, The Earth Institute of Columbia University, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • John T. Allen
  2. Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Michael K. Tippett &
    • Adam H. Sobel
  3. Center of Excellence for Climate Change Research, Department of Meteorology, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah 21589, Saudi Arabia

    • Michael K. Tippett
  4. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Adam H. Sobel

Contributions

J.T.A. carried out production of all results and led writing of the paper and research design. M.K.T. contributed to the research design and assisted with statistical analysis. All authors participated in the interpretation of results and the writing and editing process.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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