Are tornadoes increasing in bothintensityandfrequency, or could skewed historical data lead us to false conclusions? This question has vexed climatologists and p&c insurers alike amid the escalating reports of twisters when compared to
the previous 15 to 20 years. But researchers
at Florida State University (FSU) may have
answers, thanks to a model they developed
to more accurately gauge tornado risk.
The pioneering researchers provide an
overview of the model in “The Decreasing
Population Bias in Tornado Reports across
the Central Plains,” an article in Weather,
Climate, and Society, an academic journal
published by the American Meteorological Society. In addition to outlining the
methodology, the team offers a plausible
explanation as to the discrepancy in confirmed reports: namely, a population bias,
coupled with the proliferation of storm
chasers and recreational risk-takers roaming Tornado Alley.
Having long suspected that tornadoes
were traditionally underreported in
rural areas especially, James B. Elsner (a
geography professor at FSU) and fellow
co-authors—Lauren E. Michaels (graduate
student), Kelsey N. Scheitlin,
an assistant professor at the
University of Tennessee at
Knoxville, and Ian J. Elsner,
a graduate student at the
University of Florida—say the
perceived uptick in tornado
activity is deceiving.
“Most estimates of tornado risk are
probably too low because they are based
on the reported number of tornadoes,”
Elsner says. “Our research can help better
quantify the actual risk of a tornado. This
will help with [enhancing] building codes
and emergency awareness.”
More data is readily available today,
partially because storm of advances in re-
porting technology, including mobile In-
ternet and GPS navigating systems, along
with greater public awareness.
This new research may help propel the
scientific exploration of tornadoes, Elsner
The model corrects assumptions about
reporting in urban and rural areas and,
for the most part, dispels the notion that
tornadoes are occurring with greater frequency. However, researchers say some
evidence portends more powerful (and
therefore destructive) tornadoes.
“The risk of violent tornadoes appears
to be increasing,” Elsner said in a statement, citing the tornadoes in Oklahoma
City on May 31 and the 2011 tornadoes in
Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Oklahoma City tornado on May 31,
2013, was the largest tornado ever recorded, with a path of destruction measuring
2. 6 miles in width. The Tuscaloosa and Joplin tornadoes are two of the deadliest and
most expensive natural disasters in recent
tional Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Compounding the issue is that little private flood insurance is even offered in
Colorado. Furthermore, flood insurance
typically remains a tough sell to budget-conscious consumers, and NFIP is often
not retained after it becomes no longer
According to the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA), only
22,000 homes and businesses in Colorado have flood insurance. Boulder County,
one of the 17 counties hit hardest by the
raging waters, has 4,779 flood insurance
77,000 detached single-family homes in
the county, according to Census data.
“These are rare events so people think,
‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” says
Robert Hunter, director of insurance for
the Consumer Federation of America.
Hunter estimates that only about 10 to 25
percent of Colorado homes in high-risk
flood areas have coverage.
Despite the relative lack of flood insur-
ance, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado
are known for flash flood risk, EQECAT
says. “The confluence of steep canyons
concentrate rainwater run-off, while mete-
orological conditions conducive to heavy
rainfall produce a measurable risk of
flooding along the entire Rocky Mountain
range,” the firm stated in the Sept. report.
Some experts also believe that the recent forest fires have reduced the ability of
the terrain to retain water and urbanization has exacerbated conditions from the
The science of tornadoes
can move forward to
address questions related
to whether cities enhance
or inhibit tornadoes.
FSU Model Designed to
Better Gauge Tornado Risk
By Christina Bramlet
“Residents will incur extraordinary living expenses while
their homes are being repaired, says EQECAT. “There’s an
expectation of an additional $150 million in costs.”