New research published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers aims to provide some answers as to why certain parts of the US suffer from higher tornado casualty rates. Using highly advanced analysis based on data from tornadoes around the country, the study points to the gaps that are missing in some tornado prediction models.
"My interest was in trying to better understand tornado casualty events across the country," commented researcher Tyler Fricker, who is a visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography at Texas A&M University. "We have a pretty good understanding of some broad-scale factors that influence tornado casualties, but what we don't have is a great understanding of the community-level or placed-based factors that might influence those casualties."
Overlaying tornado data with data on socioeconomic, demographic and physical factors, Fricker determined he was able to more accurately predict the number of casualties and injuries any certain tornado would be likely to inflict. The fact that previous model systems have not considered such factors is astounding, especially because it puts the most vulnerable communities more at risk.
"Through these comparisons, you can start to understand which tornadoes cause many more casualties than we expect, which tornadoes cause roughly the same number of causalities we would expect, and which tornadoes did not have as many causalities as we would expect," Fricker explained. "Those are all different questions."
It’s also crucial to consider the data at a nationwide-level, which is what the study did. "You don't want to shut different areas of the country off," elaborated Fricker. "They are each going to have unique variabilities, and we are going to need to understand all of them if we are actually going to reduce the number of tornado casualties."
The study concluded that tornado casualty numbers vary even more nationally than previously realized. For example, even though the model takes into consideration certain variables such as mobile home ownership and low income, some regions like the Southeastern US experience even higher casualty rates than would be expected. Alas, that leaves Fricker with perhaps even more questions than answers than when he started.
"These numbers are unusual even when accounting for how many mobile homes were in the tornado's path," Fricker said. "The question becomes: is there something going on there besides the mobile homes and the income level, that are driving these high casualty rates?" He plans to continue his research on the topic in order to get to the bottom of that question and hopefully provide some productive solutions for tornado-impacted communities.