Up until Christmas week, 2015 was looking really good for tornado safety and was on track to become the least-deadly tornado year on record since the late 1800s. But multiple holiday severe weather outbreaks — including two deadly tornado days — pushed the year well beyond its near-record, and made this month the deadliest December on record for tornadoes in over 60 years.
Through Dec. 22, just 10 people had died in tornadoes in 2015. While it’s true that even a single life lost is one too many, 10 tornado deaths in an entire year is exceptionally low. The total is even more extraordinary when considering that 2011 brought horrific loss of life because of tornadoes, when 553 people died in what is now the second deadliest tornado year on record.
Weather Underground’s Bob Henson found that 2015’s 10 tornado deaths were astonishingly low in the historical record. “If this number holds through the end of the year,” Henson reported, “it will beat the 12 deaths reported in 1910 to become the lowest annual total on record.”
But the year took a horrible turn in the second to last week of December. Tornadoes were reported to the National Weather Service on each day from Dec. 21 to Dec. 27. The seven-day streak is now the most consecutive tornado days on record in the month of December. The previous record of six occurred in December 1982 — also during an exceptionally strong El Niño.
On Dec. 23, a deep trough of low pressure dug through the central United States, breaking dozens of warm weather records in the East and spawning severe thunderstorms from Oklahoma to Michigan.
More than 200 reports of severe wind gusts were submitted to the National Weather Service on Dec. 23, along with 39 reports of tornadoes. Two of the tornadoes had path lengths of over 60 miles, and one of them — an EF-4 — was so strong, it ripped the carpet off the floor of a home. Seven people died in tornadoes in Mississippi that day, and two in Tennessee, bringing the month’s total to nine.
Then on Dec. 26, the most deadly outbreak of the month ripped through northeast Texas in the dark. The event spawned nine tornadoes, including an EF-4 with estimated winds of up to 180 mph and a continuous damage path of 13 miles across two counties. Eleven people lost their lives in tornadoes on that night.
In all, more than 40 people died in severe weather since Dec. 23. Many of the deaths were not tornado-related.
The deadly holiday outbreaks pushed 2015 to 30 tornado deaths, 20 of which have been reported this month alone. This month is now the second-deadliest December on record for tornadoes, and the deadliest in 62 years since 1953, says Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center.
To illustrate further how uncommon the holiday outbreaks were, this is also the third straight year with December tornado deaths — only the second time on record that three consecutive Decembers have brought deadly tornadoes.
Until Dec. 2013, 14, 15, the only time in the last 65 years to have three consecutive Decembers with tornado fatalities was 1967, 68, 69.
— Greg Carbin (@GCarbin) December 28, 2015
The year with the fewest tornado-related fatalities remains 1910. Henson reports that the second-lowest year for tornado deaths was 1986, when 15 people died, and the third-lowest year was 2009, when 21 people died.