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Weather watchers link unheard-of February tornado to unseasonable warmth



@JackSuntrup
Monday, February 27, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Tornadoes in Massachusetts are rare. A tornado in February? Unheard of.

Until Saturday night.

At about 7:20 p.m., the National Weather Service said, a tornado touched down in Goshen, lifted for several miles and touched down again in Conway. The twister was on the ground for about 7 minutes with maximum wind speeds reaching an estimated 110 mph. The weather service said the tornado cut a 5-mile path through Conway.

It was the first February tornado in Massachusetts’ recorded history, according to the weather service. Official tornado statistics date back to 1950.

What role, if any, did climate change have to do with this?

Joe DelliCarpini, a weather service meteorologist in Taunton, said it would be difficult to say climate change caused this particular tornado.

“It’s tough to make that correlation,” he said. “You can’t really pin one event on the whole climate.”

But this winter, including last week, has been unseasonably warm — and warm air mixing with cold fronts can lead to thunderstorms.

DelliCarpini said Monday Boston was on track to have its fifth warmest winter on record. He said the weather service’s two closest permanent monitoring stations in Hampshire County — in Worcester and Hartford, Connecticut — are on track to notch the 11th warmest winters on record.

Thunderstorms, which can lead to tornadoes, form from a “clash of cold and warm air masses,” said Michael Rawlins, associate director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.

“There was unseasonably warm air over the region ... last week into Saturday,” DelliCarpini said. “And then we had a strong cold front cross the area Saturday, which produced a line of showers and thunderstorms.

“We had a tornado develop largely because there were very strong winds a few thousand feet off the ground,” DelliCarpini said. “That kind of broke this one storm off of the line, gave it a bit of a spin and there was a brief touchdown.”

Rawlins said research is inconclusive on whether climate change is leading to more tornadoes. But warmer weather in winter does create the conditions that make tornadoes possible, he said.

In a study published last October in the Journal of Climate, Rawlins and a team of researchers wrote that by 2050 Massachusetts could see fewer than 20 days per winter that dip below freezing.

“You wouldn’t get a thunderstorm unless you had the conditions,” Rawlins said. “It’s much more likely that you’re going to get a thunderstorm or a tornadic thunderstorm much earlier in the season with a warming climate.”

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.