Can California get tornadoes?

When you think of California, you’ll most likely think of its sandy beaches, sunny weather, and golden sunset. But the state isn’t perfect. It has its fair share of natural disasters too. So you may want to know, can California get tornadoes?

California gets tornadoes, but it’s rare. Tornadoes only happen here between 2 and 3 years and are usually weak. The geography of California and its stable weather are factors responsible for the rarity of tornados. However, they are most likely to happen in winter and spring in the Central Valley.

Although tornadoes might not be common, California is still one of the most disaster-prone states in the US. Here, we discuss whether tornadoes can happen in California.

Tornadoes in California

California experiences tornadoes. But they don’t happen often. This is due to the state’s geography. Mountains surround California, trapping heat in the area and preventing the formation of cold air. On the few occasions that cold air comes through, there’s rain. California has the mountains on its west and the Pacific on the east. This guarantees the stable weather that the state enjoys in most parts.

It’s rare to have hot and cold air mixing within the Golden State. The only few times this happens, it experiences thunderstorms and rare tornadoes. California is a dry state which further worsens with the drought. This makes it difficult for tornadoes to develop often. The air is also stable, and the wind shear isn’t enough for tornadoes to develop.

There are a lot of factors at work that result in a tornado. There must be plenty of warm, moist wind and the air turning at the right height. Thunderstorms also have to be present. Severe thunderstorms are what produce tornadoes. Only a small percentage of thunderstorms qualify as severe. Even so, California rarely experiences thunderstorms. 

In the few cases when the atmospheric lift necessary to trigger storms is present, the ground conditions aren’t exactly favorable for developing tornadoes. This lessens the impact in the area. Most tornadoes cause slight damage to trees and barns.

However, the state experiences a few tornadoes when there are dynamic storm systems that provide high enough winds for tornadoes. But the state doesn’t experience any tornado that could be significant enough.

According to the American Meteorological Society, of the around 1000 tornadoes in the US, only 11 happen in California. This shows just how rare it is in the state. Most of the tornadoes in California are between the EF-0 and EF-I range. The state experienced 403 tornadoes between 1950 and 2013. Los Angeles has a fair share of these tornadoes. 66% of them are EF-0 categories, while 23 were EF-2 categories.

Downtown Los Angeles experienced a tornado in 1983 that damaged over 150 buildings, including part of the Los Angeles Convention Center roof, and injured 32 people. In December 2015, there was a tornado in the El Dorado Hills area. At a speed of between 80-90 mph winds, the tornado only damaged a few trees and blew off the roof.

One of the strongest tornadoes in the state includes the EF-3 tornado on August 6, 1973, in Riverside County. It happened around Blythe in the Colorado desert and lasted for a short time. It was only 10 yards wide and in the ground for about a tenth of a mile. Another EF-3 tornado happened on February 9, 1978, in Orange County, causing about $500,000 worth of damages and injuring six people. However, the strongest tornado on record is the EF-3 fire tornado in Redding that accompanied the Carr Fire in July 2018.

When and Where Do Tornadoes Happen in California?

Tornadoes form when low-level horizontally rotating air gets sucked into strong above-ground severe thunderstorms. The updraft of a thunderstorm will stretch the rotating air making it spin faster. The stronger the winds in the thunderstorms, the higher the chance of a tornado happening. With very strong winds in the upper reaches and the wind changing direction, the horizontally rotating air.

In California, tornadoes usually happen in winter and spring. But they can also happen in the summer due to the monsoonal moisture in Southern California. The most tornadoes per month in the state is an average of 2 in December, February, and March. On average, other months experience one tornado each except June, July, September, and October when there’s no tornado.

Usually, tornadoes in California start as winter thunderstorms in the Pacific. But when they approach the coast, the cold air mixes with the warm air on land, causing the weather instability necessary for a tornado to form.

Most tornadoes in the US happen east of the Rocky Mountains. This is because the weather conditions here aid the formation. The warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to the north interacts with the storm systems from the west. In California, the Central Valley is most prone to tornadoes. This region is a vast area of low lands which sees convection like other parts of the country. When these storms meet the right wind shear, they could produce tornadoes.

Sacramento Valley also has significant tornadoes, especially in the spring and summer. When it rains in Los Angeles, the city also experiences severe thunderstorms that trigger tornado warnings. In the coastal areas, waterspouts happen more often and are considered tornadoes when they land. Orange and Los Angeles counties are tornado hotspots in December, with both areas seeing several warnings. But the warnings often don’t necessarily translate into an actual tornado.

Other Natural Hazards in California

Apart from the infrequent tornadoes, the state has several natural disasters you have to be prepared for. They include wildfires, earthquakes, severe storms, floods, drought, volcanoes, landslides, and earthquakes. Of all these disasters, floods and wildfires are the most common.

The state is the second most disaster-prone in the US after Texas, and some experts even say it’s number one. It declared 315 major disasters between 1953 and 2019. Due to the high probability of natural disasters here, preparedness is crucial for everyone living in California.

In Conclusion

California has its fair share of weather disasters. But tornadoes aren’t one of the most significant. Although it happens, it’s rarely intense and only causes some damage. But it remains essential to protect yourself. Disaster preparedness is important when living in California due to the vulnerability of most parts of the state to one hazard.