Florida And The South Face Floods And Tornadoes Of Epic Proportions [PHOTOS]

Meteorlogists puzzled as storms indicate a shift in weather trends.

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on May 1, 2014 1:01 PM EDT

A submerged car sits in the driveway in the Cordova Park neighborhood in Pensacola, Florida. Credit Reuters.
A submerged car sits in the driveway in the Cordova Park neighborhood in Pensacola, Florida. Credit Reuters.

Late Tuesday into early Wednesday more than two feet of rain pounded down on coastal Alabama and Florida's Panhandle, including Pensacola. This 26-hour total was more than five times as much rain as typically falls in the panhandle region for the month of April, according to regional National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) averages. It's part of the same band of storms that generated dozens of tornadoes across Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, killing at least 38. 

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NOAA map of tornado tracks near Little Rock, Arkansas
NOAA map of tornado tracks near Little Rock, Arkansas

In Florida, the torrential rain has reduced streets to rubble, flooded homes with chest high water and left cars abandoned, half-submerged, along highways. As much as five inches of rain fell in a single hour as severe thunderstorms raced across the northern part of the state. Authorities are describing it as the worst flooding in thirty years.

It's likely that Pensacola's rain set a record but they can't be certain - a suspected lightning strike knocked out the areas National Weather Service reporting station. 

Photo Credit NOAA
Photo Credit NOAA

The storms themselves are a part of a larger pattern of atypical weather that has hit the United States in recent years. Until this recent spate of storms, the year had been one of the quietest years on record for tornadoes with just a mere 20 significant tornadoes. None of them was particularly large. What meteorologists are discovering, however, is that the United States has shifted from a routine base number of tornadoes to more of a boom and bust or rollercoaster cycle with quiet years punctuated by incredibly violent ones.  In the 1970's the United States - and most of the world's tornadoes are in the United States - had a single tornado around 150 days a year. Since the 19070's, there's been a single tornado a day for about 100 days a year. However, in the 1970s the number of days with lots of tornados, that is days with 30 tornados or more, was rare. The US experienced busy tornado days roughly once every two years. These days? We have at least three days a year with 30 tornadoes or more.

Something has shifted.

And recent models are suggesting what has shifted is the climate. Traditional climate models predicted that battling effects of climate change (more heat but less wind shear) would lead to negligible effects on tornado. However, a 2013 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a changing climate might lead to an increase in the number of days that can support a storm. NOAA tornado researcher Harold Brooks in a recent Mother Jones article says that this paper "is the first significant evidence that we might expect to see a change in tornadoes."  

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