Moisture Attribution and Sensitivity Analysis of a Winter Tornado Outbreak

Maria J. Molina, John Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The tornado outbreak of 21–23 January 2017 caused 20 fatalities, more than 200 injuries, and over a billion dollars in damage in the southeast United States. The event occurred concurrently with a record-breaking warm Gulf of Mexico (GoM) basin. This article explores the influence that warm GoM sea surface temperatures (SSTs) had on the tornado outbreak. Backward trajectory analysis, combined with a Lagrangian-based moisture-attribution algorithm, reveals that the tornado outbreak’s moisture predominantly originated from the southeast GoM and the northwest Caribbean Sea. We used the WRF model to generate a control simulation of the event and explore the response to perturbed SSTs. With the aid of a tornadic storm proxy derived from updraft helicity, we show that the 21–23 January 2017 tornado outbreak exhibits sensitivity to upstream SSTs during the first day of the event. Warmer SSTs across remote moisture sources and adjacent waters increase tornado frequency, in contrast to cooler SSTs, which reduce tornado activity. Upstream SST sensitivity is reduced once convection is ongoing and modifying local moisture and instability availability. Our results highlight the importance of air-sea interactions before air mass advection towards the continental United States. The complex and nonlinear nature of the relationship between upstream SSTs and local precursor environments is also discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1263-1288
JournalWeather and Forecasting
StatePublished - May 2020


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