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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

Ohio leads the nation in tornadoes this year, but twisters are nothing new here

Tornado damage to Emmanual Church, Lorain, Ohio, 1924
Joseph E. Cole, Cleveland Press Collection
Cleveland Memory Project
Tornado damage to Emmanual Church, Lorain, Ohio, 1924

Many of us got initial ideas of what a tornado is from films like "The Wizard of Oz," "Twister" or "The Day After Tomorrow." During the last several months in Ohio, it's become clear the stakes are greater than dropping a house on a witch or watching a cow soar across the big screen.

I spent much of an afternoon last week updating damage reports for our newscasts after five tornadoes touched down across the state on Wednesday, April 17. So far, Ohio is leading the nation in the number of tornadoes in 2024. As of this writing, we've had 43.

The high number may sound alarming and create cause for concern. And maybe it should. As threats of severe weather escalated more than normal this season, some of my newsroom colleagues and I wanted to know what was behind it. Specifically, whether global warming played a role in the increased tornado count.

The answer: Undetermined.

We found something interesting from 2018, a study featured in the Nature Portfolio Journals (NPJ), which came to this conclusion:

"...at this point, it is unclear whether the observed trends in tornado environment and report frequency are due to natural variability or being altered by anthropogenic forcing on the climate.”

Today, there's still no direct connection with global warming, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Its Midwestern Regional Climate Center reports:

“So far, the majority of research stops short of connecting historical changes in tornado behavior to a warming climate. In addition to the physical complexities of tornado formation, tornado trends can be affected by increasing city footprints (more things for tornadoes to damage), improving technology (modern radar can better identify tornadoes), and changes in tornado reporting and surveying methods over time.”

One of my roles as a journalist is to put circumstances into perspective. Indeed, Ohio is leading the nation in tornadoes this year. According to NOAA, there were 49 Ohio tornadoes last year and 33 each in 2021 and 2022. In 2019, Ohio tallied 58 tornadoes. There were 51 in 2010. Ohio's record for most tornadoes in a year was 63 in 1992, more than three decades ago.

Dave Marsalek, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland, told me last week that Ohio is coming out of an El-Nino period, a climate pattern where Pacific waters are warmer than average.

"We're in a transitionary phase there," Marsalek said. "And, basically, what we're seeing is a bunch of mid-latitude wave cyclones or low-pressure systems that are coming through the area. They're giving us access to warm and humid air."

According to NOAA, there also was an El-Nino period in 1992 — Ohio's record tornado year.

Some forecasters confirm a shift in the traditional Tornado Alley, moving it more east and southeast. But there are many factors at play and more evidence is needed before such changes are made.

Many look back at Xenia's tornado on April 3, 1974, where 33 people were killed, as Ohio’s "big one." But there’s another to consider: A hundred years ago, on June 28, 1924, a massive F4 tornado with 200 mile-per-hour winds hit Sandusky and Lorain. Eighty people were killed. The destruction left in its wake is unsettling. Piles of rumble and debris lay where buildings once stood. One photo shows a Ford, turned on its top near the lakeshore.

Ford blown 40 feet into boathouse, June 28, 1924, Sandusky, OH
Cleveland Memory Project
Ford blown 40 feet into boathouse, June 28, 1924, Sandusky, OH

I spent two years in the early 2000's working as a journalist in Arkansas right at the Oklahoma border, the heart of tornado alley in the Plains. Many a night, my newsroom colleagues and I stood by for any signs of storm upheaval. At times, it was downright scary. The air and the skies open up differently in that part of the country. During hot spring nights and sweltering summer days when storms moved in, I could all but feel the fear and uncertainty blow in with a cold front.

If further studies indicate global warming is causing Tornado Alley to shift east, there’s little we can do about it now. Society can offer solutions on many other topics, but Mother Nature has an agenda of her own.

If there's any positive outcomes, it's that we're living in an age of constant communication. Technology would have significantly limited the catastrophe along Lake Erie in 1924. Severe weather alerts and reminders to "take cover" could have saved lives.

It will be important to follow the trends during the next several years and report the research showing any change in tornado alley's confirmed shift. Until then, we must do what we've always done in this age: Stay prepared and take advantage of the technological advances in weather forecasting and warnings.

The technology itself may be the biggest change of all, change that will save lives, no matter where Tornado Alley shifts and what damage tornadoes do.

"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.

Josh Boose is associate producer for newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.