A global weather pattern such as El Niño does not create a tornado, but it can certainly make conditions more favorable for one to develop, and with little warning. That’s what happened in Cape Coral, Florida on Saturday, and it may happen again soon.
The National Weather Service Tampa Bay office estimates the destructive EF2 tornado had winds as high as 132 mph, nearly the strength of Hurricane Charley when it came ashore in 2004. What started as a normal quiet January day ended with nearly 200 homeowners cleaning up an estimated $6 million in damage, according to Cape Coral police.
Tornadoes aren’t uncommon in Florida. In fact, 66 of them touch down on average every year. That’s more than any other state except Texas and Kansas. However, only eight percent since 1950 have been as strong or stronger than the one that hit Saturday. Most are weak and short-lived, often occurring during the warmer rainy season months or associated with a tropical cyclone.
Not only was this twister rare, it occurred with little warning. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma advised forecasters that a tornado could develop in Southwest Florida Saturday afternoon, but there was no official Tornado Watch that would have alerted the public that severe weather was expected in this area.
Brian LaMarre is the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Tampa Bay, and I asked him about Saturday’s storm. He said a Special Marine Warning went out from his office at 4:30 pm that a dangerous storm was approaching the coast, but what happened next was challenging.
“As the storm was approaching the coastline, it started a cyclic nature where the rotation would weaken and then strengthen again. Then, it really started to get wound up again when it moved into the Cape Coral area."
A Tornado Warning was issued for Lee County at 6:50 pm, but the tornado had already touched down. He credits the preemptive action by local emergency managers and the media for potentially saving lives.
"Lee County and many counties across Florida were actually preparing for what El Nino could bring over the next few months, and we saw that on Saturday night."
Many Floridians, including those in the greater Fort Myers metro area, participated in the Great Florida Tornado Drill just last week, which was a collaborative social media effort to raise awareness of the enhanced tornado risk this season. Brian added this reminder...
“Don’t wait for that Tornado Warning to come your way before you know where to go to seek safe shelter. You want to know ahead of time where you should go in your home, school or business.”
During an El Niño winter such as the one we are currently experiencing, there is a 60% increase in the number of reported tornadoes in Florida. In the months of January and February alone, the number of strong tornadoes (EF2 or higher) grows by 32%.
LaMarre added that an El Niño doesn’t necessarily cause one particular storm or weather event to form. Rather, it’s the atmospheric response to this weather phenomenon that makes tornadoes more likely to develop.
"This change in the weather pattern is really created from warmer water over the eastern Pacific Ocean, and it creates a stronger jet stream over the Gulf of Mexico, and that's what we saw over the weekend."
What happened in southwest Florida may happen again soon somewhere else in the state, and there is plenty of historical data to support this idea. That’s why all of Florida’s public media stations are working together with the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network to keep you informed of the various weather hazards that can be present during an El Niño. A new mobile app, Florida Storms, is a free service of this station and a convenient way to receive customized alerts of possible severe weather in your area.