(ABC4) – News of a cluster of tornadoes leaving dozens dead and thousands stranded without heat in Kentucky may create some concern about the possibility of such an event occurring locally.
The good news is that historically, Utah residents are in one of the safest places in the nation when it comes to tornadoes.
Twisters aren’t much of a concern here, but they do happen from time to time. According to data and research collected by ABC4 Chief Meteorologist Alana Brophy, the state typically sees about two tornadoes per year.
Fortunately, they aren’t nearly as destructive as the ones seen in the middle of the country over the weekend.
“The devastation in the Midwest is heartbreaking and the loss of life is gut-wrenching,” Brophy says. “The tornado outbreak spanning over several states this past weekend is rare, and a similar event is unlikely here in Utah. Tornadoes though, while not one of our biggest weather threats in the Beehive State, do impact Utah every year.”
That’s not to say there isn’t some history of tornadoes affecting the state. The EF2 twister (tornadoes are scaled zero to five on the enhanced Fujita scale) that ripped through downtown Salt Lake City on Aug. 11, 1999, caused a state-record $170 million in property damages while injuring 80 and killing one man.
Other than that single death, there is no record of a tornado-caused fatality in Utah, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Center for Environmental Information’s database, which stretches back to 1950. It’s just as unusual for a tornado to touch down in the state in the month of December. Just one of the 136 recorded tornadoes since 1950 in Utah took place in the middle of winter, an F1 twister in Utah County on Dec. 2, 1970, that injured none and caused no damage to property or crops.
Even injuries are quite rare. Including the 80 that were harmed in the ’99 event, only 96 Utahns have been reported as injured in a tornado. And apart from the $170 million in damages on that August day, only $7.1 million more have been carried away from tornado destruction in the last 61 years according to the NOAA.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $17 billion in tornado-caused losses that the entire United States suffers each year on average.
Still, tornadoes have the potential to occur anywhere that the conditions are right, and that includes Utah, Brophy says. Geography, however, plays a major role in why some parts of the United States experience more tornadoes than others.
“The ingredients necessary are found in large thunderstorms. That’s where you usually have warm, moist conditions near the surface, cool air aloft and winds moving fast and flowing in opposite directions to create rotation,” Brophy says. “Some regions of our country are favored with these conditions more than others, like the Midwest. ‘Tornado Alley’ is prone to these conditions because you get colliding air masses with warm, wet air from the Gulf of Mexico to cooler, quick-moving air from Canada or the Rockies.”
In 2021, Utah’s tornadoes have been on the smaller end of the Fujita scale. Just one twister, the one that touched down twice briefly in North Salt Lake and Woods Cross in September, reached F1 on the meter. Other wind events that may have resembled a tornado such as ones in Juab and Weber Counties were later classified as a landspout and an ‘EFU’ on the Fujita scale due to an ‘Unknown’ amount of wind damage evidence.
Even though there are sometimes major windstorms that can cause damage, the storm on September 11, 2020 that ripped through the state, knocking out power to tens of thousands and knocking a man to the ground in a fatal accident, was not categorized as a tornado since the winds weren’t spinning.
Scenes of the destruction in Kentucky have been heartbreaking, as many have been left either without a home or mourning the loss of a loved one as the holidays draw closer. Fortunately for residents here in Utah, a winter tornado with that kind of collateral damage is virtually unheard of.
“Tornadoes typically peak in the spring and summer,” Brophy says of the United States as a whole. “But sadly, here we are in December talking about a unique event and a massive loss of life.”