Tornadoes in New England: Not as Rare as You'd Think

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 29 2014 3:28 PM

Tornadoes in New England: Not as Rare as You'd Think

A mini outbreak of tornadoes swept through New England on Sunday and Monday, the most severe of which—an EF-2 with estimated winds of 120 mph—hit Revere, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Weaker EF-0 tornadoes were also confirmed by the National Weather Service in Wolcott, Connecticut (near Bristol), and in Limington, Maine, west of Portland.

According to the Boston Globe, Monday’s tornado damaged more than 100 homes in Revere as it passed through the heart of the town’s central business district. A survey report from the National Weather Service showed the tornado was about 3/8 of a mile wide at its peak and traveled about two miles. According to the NWS, “thankfully and miraculously there were no fatalities or injuries reported.” Though the National Weather Service mentioned the general risk for tornadoes in their technical discussion of severe thunderstorms on Monday morning, the local office didn’t explicitly issue a tornado warning in advance of the quickly forming Revere storm.

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In a blog post deconstructing the storm, meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan said: “It would have been virtually impossible to provide any lead time with a tornado warning in this situation.”

As with virtually all crazy weather events these days, the Revere tornado was captured on social media as it happened, including this impressive Instagram video that was widely shared.

The tornado hit as Monday’s workday was just beginning:

Since comprehensive tornado records have been kept (starting in 1950) a tornado has never hit the north side of the Boston metro area:

Judging from that same database, Monday’s tornado is also the strongest ever recorded to hit the Boston area, eclipsing an EF-1 that hit Newton in 1972. However, that of course doesn’t mean tornadoes have never happened there before.

Going back to colonial records compiled by Massachusetts-born meteorologist Thomas Grazulis, the first confirmed tornado in the New World was one that hit at 2 p.m. on July 8, 1680, in Cambridge, before there was even an America.

All told, there have been 159 tornadoes in Massachusetts since 1951, most of them relatively weak EF-0’s. But 44 were at least as strong as Monday’s, about seven per decade. The last one took place in 2011, killing three people near Worcester, and caused more than $200 million in damage.

While Monday’s tornado wasn’t unusual for New England, it certainly is infrequent for the Boston metro.

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Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.