Forecasters explain rare winter tornado in Brunswick County

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The rarity of winter tornadoes in North Carolina is due in large part to a lack of warm, humid air.

However, along the coast, any front that can move inland can bring the required ingredients onshore.

“If that coastal front can surge northward and move inland a few miles, it can radically change the environment from one that is hostile to thunderstorm and tornado formation to one that is quite favorable. Unfortunately, for a brief period of time and in a very localized place, that happened in Brunswick County,” explained Bill Bunting, chief of Forecast Operations at the Storm Prediction Center.

On Monday morning, the Storm Prediction Center upgraded areas along the coast to a Slight Risk due in large part to forecaster experience, not modeling, suggesting the front could come onshore.

“The forecaster who upgraded the risk along the North Carolina coast Monday morning, I talked with him on Tuesday, and he said I’ve seen this before. Sometimes the models don’t surge the front in far enough or sometimes the air gets just favorable enough along the coast that really intense storms can develop,” Bunting said.

The tornado watch was issued an hour after the first warning due to questions on how to best cover the threat, and that is something the Storm Prediction Center discusses with every event.

“One of the things we look for would be the duration of the threat and the spatial extent,” explained Bunting. “If it’s one storm that is likely to be done within an hour or so, then it’s hard to really issue a watch because a watch is a larger area affected for say several hours whereas a warning for one to perhaps two hours might be the best way to cover a particular threat.”

Bunting said that while the warning system isn’t perfect, it is the envy of the world.

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