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Science News: Deadly Weather

Severe drought quiets U.S. tornado season, but fans the flames of Southwest wildfires

by Catherine McNiff

Large Hadron Collider

A tornado touching down. Source: NOAA

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According to the National Weather Service, 2012 ushered in a significant increase in tornadic activity. Monthly average statistics from 1991-2010 tell the story: January's average of 35 was bested by the actual number, 97; February's average 29 was more than doubled by the 63 that touched down; and March's average 80 was simply blown away by the 154, a number topped only by April's 206.

The Upside of Drought

But starting in May, things quieted significantly. The drought endured by the southern part of our country contributed to the decline; spring into summer is normally the most active tornado season, but May through June 2012 witnessed the fewest tornadoes since at least 2008.

Following on the heels of one of the worst tornado seasons in recent history in 2011, 2012 was still deadly, with 68 fatalities for the year. To compare, 2011 recorded 553 deaths, 2010 had 45 deaths, and 2009 had 21. Total annual tornado numbers have 2011 in the top spot with 1,691; 2010 with 1,282; 2009 with 1,146; and 2012 with 800. The top five tornado states of 2012 were Kansas, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi.

2012 Top Ten Tornado Days

Rank Date Number of fires
1 3/02/12 132
2 4/14/12 122
3 1/22/12 41
4 6/01/12 32
5 2/28/12 29
6 5/25/12 26
7 4/03/12 21
8 5/10/12 20
9 1/25/12 19
10 5/19/12 19
Source: NOAA

Wildfires: Drought Increases Appetite

The same drought that helped decrease the intensity of 2012’s tornado season, made the wildfires of 2012 hungrier; with the fewest fires in 10 years, 2012’s 56,088 fires consumed a disproportionate 9,176,530 acres. Only 2006 had more acres burned with 9,589,836, but also had significantly more fires: 91,964.

New Mexico and Colorado endured a horrible fire season.  In New Mexico, fire burned through 190,000 acres of the Gila National Forest with more than 1,200 firefighters battling the blaze, the largest in the state's history. In Colorado, there were almost a dozen fires burning at one time. Military aircraft tankers were called in to help battle the flames. Surveying the fire near Colorado Springs from the air, Gov. John Hickenlooper said, "This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado."

Year-by-Year Wildfires

Date Number of fires Acres consumed
2012 (1/1/12 - 12/7/12) 56,0889,176,530
2011 (1/1/11 - 12/7/11) 67,058 8,518,082
2010 (1/1/10 - 12/7/10) 67,2093,352,319
2009 (1/1/09 - 12/7/09) 78,1805,762,277
2008 (1/1/08 - 12/7/08) 77,5815,270,693
2007 (1/1/07 - 12/7/07) 83,208 8,900,015
2006 (1/1/06 - 12/7/06) 91,9649,589,836
2005 (1/1/05 - 12/7/05) 63,5298,581,752
2004 (1/1/03 - 12/7/04) 64,7178,078,821
2003 (1/1/03 - 12/7/03) 59,8023,910,673
10-year average
2003-2012 72,010 7,144,910
Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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