By Steven Rodas and Len Melisurgo
A Jackson grandmother hid in her bathroom. Two Howell families sought refuge in shelters. And scores of New Jersey residents woke up to the widespread devastation wrought by one of the largest tornado outbreaks on record in the state.
In less than one hour last weekend, seven tornadoes touched down in New Jersey including three EF-2 twisters with fierce winds reaching 120 to 130 mph during the destructive thunderstorms that also led to thousands of power outages and substantial property damage, according to the National Weather Service.
That tied the state’s record for the most tornadoes in a single day.
The last time New Jersey saw an outbreak as big was an unusually warm morning in November 1989, when seven tornadoes coursed through seven different counties as a cluster of intense, compact thunderstorms known as “supercells” roared through the region in the span of about 90 minutes.
Another large outbreak occurred just two years ago when six tornadoes touched down in New Jersey on a warm and humid day in late July 2021. Less than five weeks later, three twisters hit the Garden State on the same day, amid a volatile atmosphere stirred up by the remnants of a hurricane.
Even though tornado outbreaks are still rare in New Jersey, the recent ones have many people taking notice and asking questions. Among them: Will climate change mean more twisters in New Jersey’s future?
“There is no evidence that these tornadoes in early April are related to climate change,” New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson, whose office is based at Rutgers University, told NJ Advance Media.
Scientists agree that climate change — humans driving long-term temperature or weather shifts due to activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas — will mean warmer weather. However, further implications for our region from that warming depend on a number of factors, they said.
“While you’ll see on our (New Jersey tornado database) that April twisters are rare, and the February 2023 twister even more rare, there have been far too few of these events to recognize any change,” Robinson said. “With future warming, there may be a longer, but we’re unsure if more active, severe thunderstorm season due to warmer atmosphere and ocean temperatures here in the mid-Atlantic.”
Robinson agreed that such a longer thunderstorm season could potentially result in the atmospheric conditions needed to spur more tornadoes, but more time needs to elapse and more data needs to be collected to make such a prediction.
Alex Staarmann, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s regional forecast office in New Jersey, agreed it’s too early to make a connection between climate change and the recent tornado outbreak or other limited-duration weather events.
“This region happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Staarmann said during an interview Tuesday on News 12 New Jersey. “It’s really hard, really nearly impossible to directly link any sort of one- or two-day severe weather event, or snowstorm or tropical system to climate change, because those are really trends that are observed over the course of years, decades, centuries rather than just one day.”
For a tornado to form, both energy and unstable winds are necessary. The warming of the planet due to climate change will mean hotter, more humid air, resulting in the energy required to spawn tornadoes, according to experts. However, it’s unclear if the winds needed to produce tornadoes will also be present.
Wind shear is described by the Federal Aviation Administration, which studies the atmospheric variation when considering its impact on aircraft, as a “change in wind speed and/or direction over a short distance” which can often come from thunderstorms.
In order for spinning air to turn into a tornado, it needs to shift vertically and come into contact with the ground, Rutgers atmospheric scientist Tony Broccoli told NJ Advance Media after the remnants of Hurricane Ida sparked seven tornadoes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in early September 2021.
The majority of thunderstorms don’t yield tornadoes because a specific combination of other elements also has to take place, Broccoli noted.
Lucas Harris, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, on Wednesday zoomed out to consider an even wider region of the country. He said there is some suggestion that an eastward shift of “Tornado Alley” may be happening due to climate change.
Experts said the region encompasses the central U.S. from Texas up into Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
“There are some studies on how we might expect the most tornado-prone regions of the U.S. to shift under global warming,” Harris said. “However much of this wouldn’t mean much for New Jersey. We don’t expect New Jersey to become like Oklahoma in terms of tornadoes; the geography simply won’t allow it. I would be far more concerned about heavy rain and flooding.”
For some New Jersey residents, receiving emergency phone alerts and warnings to take shelter last Saturday, the storms felt particularly fast-moving.
But Robinson said an analysis of the storms has not pointed to anything abnormal there either.
“Individual storms can and often do come on quickly,” Robinson said. “This is because part of the driving factor to storms is the speed of winds at various levels of the atmosphere, and they were racing on Saturday.”
While tornadoes are quite rare in New Jersey compared to other regions of the country with the Garden State averaging two twisters per year since 1950, Harris of NOAA said he is concerned residents can be caught unprepared for these kinds of emergencies.
It’s not like, for example, Illinois where Harris grew up. There, tornado shelters are ubiquitous and drills for responding to the harrowing storms more commonplace.
Many “people may not know what precautions to take if a tornado did threaten their home or workplace,” Harris said of New Jerseyans.
“Another danger is that strong thunderstorms can easily cause flash flooding, especially in hilly or urban areas. We remember the tornadoes from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in 2021, but recall that while nobody in New Jersey was killed by these tornadoes, there were (multiple) deaths from Ida’s flooding in New Jersey alone,” Harris said.
At least 30 deaths were reported due to that storm and the overwhelming majority of victims drowned, most of them in vehicles that were submerged on roads.
“Certainly, tornadoes capture the imagination much more than rain does, but flooding can be much more dangerous,” he said.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said in a 2019 report, titled “New Jersey’s Rising Seas and Changing Coastal Storms,” that the Garden State is projected to face “dramatic” sea level rise, bringing stronger storms for the rest of this century.
That has Cameron Foster concerned. Foster, an organizer with the New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping residents after natural disasters, has experienced the devastation from these storms firsthand.
“When my home flooded with 4 feet of water during Superstorm Sandy, we were told it was a 100-year or once-in-a-lifetime storm,” Foster said Wednesday. “But then I was partially displaced again when my rental flooded in Hurricane Ida, even though I was living in an area that had never flooded like that before.”
“This is becoming a whole-state issue, with Shore and inland communities alike at risk of losing everything to extreme weather,” he added.
Steven Rodas may be reached at [email protected].
Len Melisurgo may be reached at [email protected].