Space & Innovation

Ocean Temps Could Be Key in Predicting Tornadoes

Forecasting twister outbreaks months in advance could save lives, researchers said.

The accuracy of tornado forecasting has improved in recent decades, thanks to advances such as weather satellites, more sophisticated radar, and the use of supercomputers to crunch data. That's all enabled scientists to predict tornado outbreaks - that is, occurrences of multiple tornadoes, all spawned by the same weather system - as much as seven days in advance.

But now, a just-published study in Environmental Research Letters gives hope for a future in which scientists may be able to foresee tornado outbreaks months in advance, based upon ocean surface temperatures thousands of miles away.

NEWS: Extreme Tornado Outbreaks Becoming More Common

In the article, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Miami explain how patterns in the spring phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), coupled with variability in North Atlantic sea surface temperatures, could help predict U.S. regional tornado outbreaks.

The scientists, who studied data gathered between 1950 and 2014, found that variations in ENSO phases were linked to distinct patterns of tornado outbreak probability.

The strongest tornado connection was with strong, persistent La Niñas, consistent with the Super Outbreak of 1974 and the record-shattering tornado outbreaks of 2011, both of which occurred during strong La Niñas. The latter, in which waters in the Pacific are cooler than normal, are the opposite of El Niño, which results from a warm mass of water.

NEWS:More than 50 Tornadoes Hit the U.S. Southeast

"This is the first study to show that the most frequently occurring spring sea surface temperature patterns in the tropical Pacific and North Atlantic are linked to distinctive spatial patterns of the probability of U.S. regional tornado outbreaks," lead author Sang-Ki Lee, Ph.D., an oceanographer at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, said in a press release.

One of the events with the strongest connection to ocean surface temperatures was the outbreak of April 25-28, 2011, in which more than 200 tornadoes occurred throughout the southeastern United States, and caused more than 300 deaths.

The frightening nature of tornadoes is captured by this photo of a funnel in Manitoba in 2007.

The winners are in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "Weather in Focus" photo contest, picked from more than 2,000 entries taken between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015. "From rainbows and sunsets to lightning and tornadoes, the winning photos aren’t just captivating to look at, but inspire us to look at the world in different ways," said Douglas Hilderbrand, NOAA's contest judge and Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador Lead. "It was difficult to pick winners from so many good entries." In first place, from the category "Science in Action," is "Green Bank Telescope in WV" by Mike Zorger, Falls Church, Va.

Photos: It's the Crazy-Extreme Weather Season

All 16 winning images will be displayed in a

Gateway to NOAA

exhibit located on the NOAA campus in Silver Spring, Md., starting in July. Second place in "Science in Action" went to "Photographer captures the aurora" by Christopher Morse, Fairbanks, Alaska.

In third place: "Atmospheric Research Observatory" by Joseph Phillips, Boulder, Colo.

Photo: NASA's Extreme Weather Photo Contest

And honorable mention also went to Joseph Phillips, Boulder, Colo. for "Atmospheric Research Observatory."

In the category "Weather, Water & Climate," first place went to "Snow Express" by Conrad Stenftenagel, Saint Anthony, Ind.

Photos: Lake Effect Snow Buries Buffalo

In second place was "Proton arc over Lake Superior" by Ken William, Clio, Mich.

"With a Bang" by Bob Larson, Prescott, Ariz., won third place in the "Weather, Water & Climate" category.

Top 10 Worst Weather Disasters

Honorable mention went to Alana Peterson, Maple Lake, Minn. for "Raindrops on a Leaf."

A second honorable mention was won for "Fire in the Sky over Glacier National Park" by Sashikanth Chintla, North Brunswick, N.J.

Sunsets and Other Sky Wonders

In the category "In the Moment," first place went to "Smoky Mountains" by Elijah Burris, Canton, N.C.

Second place went to "Spring Captured: Freezing rain attempts to halt spring" by Mike Shelby, Elkridge, Md.

Unexplained Mysteries of 2014 and Into 2015

And third place went to "Rolling clouds in Lake Tahoe" by Christopher LeBoa, San Leandro, Calif.

Of course the professionals had their own category. First place was won by Brad Goddard, Orion, Ill., for "Stars behind the storm."

Awesome Images Make You Feel Amazing

Brad Goddard pretty much cleaned up this category, winning second (and third) place with "A tornado churns up dust in sunset light near Traer, IA."

Third place went for "A tornado crosses the path, Reinbeck, IA" by Brad Goddard.

Must-See Planet Pics: Earth Day 2015 Edition

“Fog rolls in from the ocean on a hot summer day, Belbar, N.J.” by Robert Raia, Toms River, N.J., won honorable mention in the pro category.

To see all of the images on NOAA's website, go here.