What’s Behind the Parade of Storms This May?


The devastation across the Southern Plains, the Ohio Valley and the Mid-Atlantic have been both heartbreaking and unrelenting. A parade of storms has been marching across the country for almost the entire month of May, scarring the landscape with tornadoes and severe flooding.

This has been a slow-motion disaster unfolding across the Farm Belt. With fields underwater, the corn, wheat and soybean crop has yet to be planted in many states. And those that did get in an early planting are fretting over saturated soil and standing water.

Estimates from the Department of Agriculture's recent Spring Planting Report show that in some states, this is the slowest start to the planting season since 1995. Even in states like Arkansas that haven't seen as much rain, the onslaught of water from other states has pushed the water levels to records not seen since the epic flooding of 1990.

The atmospheric finger-pointing is underway and once again, all signs are pointing to a stalled weather pattern. The jet stream (high altitude winds that steer weather systems) hardly budged all month across the lower 48, pinning the cold air in the southwest and the heat in the southeast. Phoenix, Arizona just experienced their coldest May since 1977, while Charleston, South Carolina is on pace for their hottest May on record.

Smack dab in the middle of the country was the inflection point, where a stew of unstable air and plentiful water vapor spawned hundreds of thunderstorms. As of this writing, 516 tornadoes were recorded during the month, bringing the yearly count over 1,000. On Memorial Day alone, a jaw-dropping 72 tornadoes touched down across the country.

Undoubtedly we can implicate climate change on this, right? Not so fast. The evidence isn't clear, and the consensus thus far is that the severe weather outbreaks and tornadoes are simply a symptom of the active weather pattern. Sam Lillo from the University of Oklahoma posted a tweet Wednesday regarding the recent drumbeat tying climate change to the number of tornadoes:

Now the burning questions. Can we get out of this anytime soon? And what does It mean for the summer?

Already there are signs that the pattern may shift slightly at the start of June. This should in turn shift the focus of the storms perhaps to the northern part of the country and give the water-logged midsection a chance to dry out. Unfortunately, that will also cause our weather to turn cool – at least through the middle of the week.

The caveat of course is that models have a hard time surmising the transition from spring to summer in general, and this could just be a temporary blip with a return to more volatility (for storms and temperatures) in the second week of June. The saving grace is that as we go deeper into June (and early July... please don't let us wait that long), the pattern ultimately will be thrust into a summer mode. The seasonal change forces the jet stream to relax, retreat to the north, and becomes less active. That may be the ultimate end game for this record-setting spring in the U.S. and a resumption of the beach days here in New England.

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