Can we get a tornado in Alaska? It's happened before.
The short answer is yes, they are possible. In fact, they've happened here in the past. But the longer answer is a little more confusing than it seems and raises even more questions about weather in Alaska.
What is a Tornado?
As defined by the National Weather Service, a tornado is a violently rotating column of air touching the ground, usually attached to the base of a thunderstorm.
One of the key points of this definition is that the column of air must be touching the ground. A violently rotating column of air or simply rotating column of air that doesn’t touch the ground is a funnel cloud. No matter how close it gets to the ground, it is not officially considered a tornado until it touches.
Funnel clouds are much more common in Alaska than tornadoes, sometimes getting captured on camera.
After a funnel touches the ground and the violently rotating column of air is classified as a tornado, it gets a strength rating. The Enhanced Fujita Scale, or EF-Scale, is a rating of how strong a given tornado was.
The EF-Scale is meant to quantify the strength of a given tornado by surveying the damage and comparing it with damage to similar objects at certain wind speeds.
The scale rates tornado strength from EF-0 to EF-5. Each rating quantifies a specific wind speed range.
Tornadoes in Alaska
Alaska has the fewest tornadoes on record of any state in the U.S.
Dating back to 1950, when the count started, there are just 4.
- November 4, 1959
- June 14, 2004
- June 18, 2004
- July 25, 2007
Every tornado in Alaska was relatively weak on the EF-Scale, all given a rating of EF-0.
Not only were the tornadoes weak, they did not cause any deaths, injuries or property damage.
Four is the fewest number of tornadoes in any state and the weakest, by far. Rhode Island comes in at just 13 tornadoes since 1950. Partly because of its size, partly because of its geography. Even Hawaii has seen 41 tornadoes since 1950.
Compared to Texas, the state with the most annual tornadoes, that is staggering. The Lone Star State has an annual average of 140 tornadoes each year.
The Untold Story
Alaska is a massive state, home to sparsely-populated wilderness. It has the lowest population density of any state, and the least amount of radar coverage.
The white circles on the map are the areas covered by radar in Alaska. Every storm outside of those radar circles goes undetected unless seen by a person.
The lack of population and radar coverage means some storms in Alaska go completely undetected. This means that there could be a tornado, severe thunderstorm or funnel cloud that occurs outside radar range and away from people — and nobody would know. Therefore, Alaska’s tornado count could be higher than the official count of just 4 since 1950.
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