December 31, 2018

2018 Is Set To End With The Fewest Tornado-Related Fatalities On Record

A relative lull in tornado activity in 2018 allowed the year to finish with the fewest number of tornado-related fatalities since reliable records began in 1940. Assuming we get through today’s severe thunderstorms without any significant tornadoes, the United States will end the year with 10 deaths attributable to tornadoes.

2018 will end with a little more than 1,100 reports of tornadoes submitted to the Storm Prediction Center. A decent number of those reports were sent in for the same tornado—adjusted for inflation, the agency received reports of just shy of 1,000 tornadoes across the country in 2018. An official count of all confirmed tornadoes will be released sometime in the new year.

Fewest Tornado Deaths

Ten people died as a direct result of injuries inflicted by a tornado according to the latest count from the Storm Prediction Center. This would be the lowest number of tornado fatalities in a year since the National Weather Service’s database of weather-related fatalities began in 1940. The previous record low occurred in 1986 when 15 people died in tornadoes.

Half of this year’s tornado deaths occurred in November or December. Four people died in a permanent building, including two Amazon employees who were killed when a tornado struck the company’s distribution facility near Baltimore, Maryland. Four people died at home, and two others were killed in vehicles.

The record-low number of tornado-related fatalities this year is attributable both to the overall downtick in tornadoes this year, the lack of violent tornadoes, and likely an overall trend of better warnings and tornado safety education.

Below-Average Tornado Activity

Source: Storm Prediction Center

The Storm Prediction Center’s inflation-adjusted tornado count for 2018 shows this year’s tornado activity well below average and near an all-time minimum. Tornado activity was fairly steady through 2018, steadily building up through the year rather than coming in big bursts like we’ve seen in years past.

The biggest single day for tornadoes reports in the U.S. was Halloween, when the SPC received 61 tornado reports, followed by April 13 (46 reports), December 1 (38), July 19 (31), and April 3 and November 11 tied at 28 tornado reports. It’s notable that only two of the six biggest tornado days this year occurred in the springtime, which is typically the peak of tornado activity across the country.

We also made it through the year without recording any EF-4 or EF-5 tornadoes anywhere in the United States, the first such year on record. The last EF-4 tornado in the U.S. touched down in Texas in April 2017, and the last EF-5 struck Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013.

Where Tornadoes Happened

It’s no surprise that an unusually quiet year populated by off-season tornado outbreaks would see the bulk of tornadoes touch down outside of what is traditionally considered Tornado Alley. The stretch of the Plains from Texas to the Dakotas saw fewer tornadoes than usual. Nobody died in an Oklahoma tornado this year for the first time since 2006.

Most of the tornadoes we saw this year touched down in the southeast or Upper Midwest. There’s a strong argument to be made that the United States’ “tornado alley” is actually shifting (or at least expanding) east toward the Deep South—covering states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Noteworthy tornadoes occurred in central North Carolina—where an EF-2 tornado cut through the city of Greensboro and very close to where I live—as well as Maryland (hitting the aforementioned Amazon warehouse) and a photogenic tornado that hit central Iowa at the same time a severe thunderstorm capsized a duck boat in Missouri, killing 17 people.

Some Still Strike Without Warning

Tornadoes striking without warning is a popular narrative news organizations use to cover devastating tornadoes. But the fact of the matter is that most tornadoes that injure or kill people are warned in advance—it’s just that some people in the path of the storm don’t hear the warning in time.

However, some tornadoes really can (and do!) strike without warning. I combed through the tornado reports and tornado warnings issued between January 1 and December 30 and found more than 100 tornado reports that didn’t coincide with any tornado warning polygons at any point during the year.

Now, not all of these tornado reports were confirmed tornadoes. Some likely wound up being damaging straight-line wind events once crews took a better look on the ground. But it’s a stark reminder that warningless tornadoes can happen anywhere in the country—from coast to coast—and that it’s more important than ever to take strong thunderstorms seriously even if they lack a tornado warning.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.