In a year full of severe weather, and the occasional tornado warning, it takes an all-hands-on-deck strategy to keep people informed and safe, from forecasting the risk of a tornado to an official survey confirmation.
On average, New Jersey sees two tornadoes a year. However, this year so far, there have been three confirmed touchdowns. One was in Sussex County on May 28, and two were June 13 in Gloucester County.
“The past couple of weeks have been exhausting and tiring,” said Alex Staarmann, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.
Southeastern New Jersey saw its share of storms recently that had the potential for tornadoes. Beth Schofield, of Greenwich Township, was watching TV on the evening of May 28.
“My husband texted me from the Salem Nuclear Plant to be careful because there’s talk of a tornado going on. I immediately freaked out. ... I ran outside to look at the sky and take pictures — that’s what we do with thunderstorms,” Schofield said.
A tornado warning was attached to that storm at 7:59 p.m., extending from Stow Creek to Downe Township. While the weather service did not confirm a tornado touchdown, a water spout did appear in Fortescue.
“I didn’t notice (the rotating), but my husband did from the nuclear plant and my neighbor did,” Schofield said.
Twelve tornado warnings have been issued in the state by the weather service as of June 24. That’s the second-highest amount in New Jersey in a given year, according to Iowa State University’s Iowa Environmental Mesonet, which dates to 1989. Typically the state sees tornadoes from May to July.
“On May 28, we realized this would be an elevated threat for our area. It looked like we were going to see a tornado somewhere,” Staarmann said.
The process from forecasting the potential for severe weather to confirmation of touchdown runs over days.
The Storm Prediction Center, a government agency in Oklahoma, will map Severe Weather Outlook areas four to eight days in advance. Once within three days, the center will issue categorical and probabilistic risk categories for severe weather potential. There are five categories, ranging from lowest risk to highest. Early on the day of the event, risks pertain to the probability of damaging winds (50 knots or higher), large hail (more than one inch in diameter) and tornadoes.
The center will issue a Mesoscale Convective Discussion typically one to three hours before any tornado or severe thunderstorm watch goes into effect. The update lets forecasters know what conditions are and their likelihood of issuing a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch.
“Then, the SPC coordinates with us (the local weather service office),” Staarmann said. The coordination involves what counties should be placed under a watch and what type of watch should be issued.
A watch will be issued when the ingredients for a severe thunderstorm or tornado are present. Then, the Mount Holly office goes into tracking mode.
“There’s oftentimes one or two people that are just watching radar and keeping an eye out for anything severe. Then, there’s a communications person who’s looking at social media and talking to the media,” Staarmann said.
Only the National Weather Service has the power to issue a tornado warning. A warning is issued if a tornado is indicated on radar or confirmed on the ground, though the latter is rarer in New Jersey.
“Ninety percent of the time, you won’t have a picture or video here, because the rain is wrapped around them,” Staarmann said.
If damage reports start to be sent in by the media or public, the weather service will go out to survey the area and make a final determination on the status of the storm.
“We have at least two people, though it depends on the severity of the damage and location. Typically, the storm survey team is coordinated with the emergency management within the county. They’ll have more information on when the damage starts and ends.” Staarmann said.
The survey team typically will go out the day following the storm.
“We’d start our assessment of taking pictures and going through the Enhanced Fujita Scale of indicators,” Staarmann said. The EF scale ranges from 0 to 5 and indicates the severity of a tornado.
If a tornado is confirmed, that information is typed into a report and messaged out as a Public Information Statement, which is then pushed out to the community.