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Research shows mountains playing significant role in recent Virginia tornadoes

Virginia Tech research reveals how mountains can enhance tornadoes

ROANOKE, Va. – "Tornadoes can happen anywhere, anytime, any month of the year, any state and over any type of terrain," says Kathryn Prociv. Prociv is a Virginia Tech alum, who currently works as a meteorologist and producer for NBC News. 

While earning her masters at Tech, Prociv studied tornadoes in complex terrain. It was all in an effort to debunk the myth that tornadoes cannot happen in the mountains. This research went on to benefit the National Weather Service in Blacksburg. 

Phil Hysell is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the NWS in Blacksburg. He tells 10 News, "Kathryn's research has shown that as those rotating storms descend from the mountains, it can actually stretch that rotation and bring it closer to the ground."

Following the 2011 Pulaski County, Glade Spring and Mount Rogers tornadoes, there has been an alarming trend in strong tornadoes in this part of Virginia. The mountains, in many cases, actually played a big role. 

When a storm goes up a mountain, it behaves like a figure skater that extends its arms out. This results in slower spin.

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When a rotating storm comes down the mountain, the opposite happens. The storm actually stretches, which is the equivalent of a figure skater bringing its arms in. The spin increases, and the storm gets stronger. 

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We saw that happen during the EF-2 in Draper and during our most recent EF-3 in Franklin County. That's why it is important to always have a severe weather safety plan, according to Hysell.

"If you live in a mountainous area, you are prone to tornadoes - maybe not as frequently as in the Plains, but you still need to be prepared."

The Plains have actually seen a drop in tornadoes, while the Deep South has seen a dramatic increase.

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Image courtesy of Climate Central

So is this recent string of tornadoes the new normal for us? Research shows that the overall amount of EF-2 tornadoes (or stronger) per decade in Virginia has gone unchanged since 1980.

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But for folks like Prociv and for StormTeam 10 meteorologists, the three EF-3 tornadoes we've seen since February 2016 cannot be ignored. That may not be enough to determine a "new normal" for our region, but it's definitely a good enough reason to always be weather aware.


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