Rocket Chevrolet after Shelby tornado

Rocket Chevrolet was one of many businesses and homes damaged when a tornado roared through Shelby on April 14. (Ohio State Highway Patrol photo)

MANSFIELD -- Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy once said, "You might be a redneck if... you've been on TV more than five times describing the sound of a tornado."

Clearly, the comic never anticipated the spring of 2019, which has crashed one wave after another of tornadoes across the country. A record number of people have likely made that television news appearance this year.

And as May roars to an end across the Midwest this weekend, there have been a record number of reported tornadoes this month -- almost 500 across the United States.

Granted, May is the height of twister season since tornadoes need a clash of cold and hot air to spring to life. 

But local meteorology expert Elizabeth Mazzocco, a Mansfield resident who teaches the topic at OSU-Newark and Ashland University, said it may be more than a weather anomaly.

"(The increase) would be perfectly consistent with climate change," she said. "More energy in the atmosphere. More contrast in temperatures. Both of these contribute to more severe weather."

Mazzocco, who said the last few years have been relatively "quiet" in terms of tornado activity, said there have been 1,006 tornadoes reported in 2019 as of Wednesday, up from an average of 762. A reported 38 people have died because of tornadoes across the country this year.

Tornado activity has hit closer to home this spring than perhaps is normal. On April 14, a twister slammed into Shelby, wreaking havoc on the south side of the community, destroying and damaging homes and businesses.

On Monday, a cluster of tornadoes smashed into Dayton and other communities in southwest Ohio with a ferocity likely not seen in that locale since Xenia was virtually destroyed by a twister in 1974.

Generally speaking, rising ocean and surface temperatures drive atmospheric instability when warm, moist air moves across the middle of the country and slams into colder air sweeping further down from the north on a lower jet stream.

Mazzocco, who earned a bachelor's degree in geography from Ohio University and her master's degree in atmospheric sciences from The Ohio State University, said global warming and climate change may not best describe what is happening around the globe.

She said she prefers the term "global weirding," a term some scientists are using to describe what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes. Namely, the weather gets weird. Hots get hotter, wets get wetter, dries get drier and the most violent storms get more numerous and perhaps more violent.

Mazzocco also pointed to a heated southeastern U.S., some areas of which are experiencing drought conditions this year even as the Midwest receives consistent, if not heavy, rainfall.

"We still have winter. In fact, it gets enhanced in a lot of ways with more water vapor in the atmosphere, which results in more precipitation. ... The cold events we had in 2014 and 2015 can be partly attributed to arctic warming," Mazzocco said.

Is it possible there has not even been a marked historical increase in tornado activity? Some experts say yes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains tornadoes must be observed, unlike rainfall, which can be measured with a “fixed instrument.”

So the potential exists that many tornadoes were not counted in the past when populations were less, the NOAA said, adding, “This disparity between tornado records of the past and current records contributes a great deal of uncertainty regarding questions about the long-term behavior or patterns of tornado occurrence.”

Regardless, Mazzocco and other experts, such as Victor Gensini, a climatologist at Northern Illinois University, guard against labeling the current spate of storms the result of climate change. They look at the data and say this year's weather is "consistent" with that possibility.

“The analogy I like to use is with baseball’s steroid era,” Gensini told NBC News this week.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer if this one home run was caused by steroids, but when you look at the batting average or the number of home runs over that time period, it’s easy to say that, yes, statistically a lot of those home runs were likely caused by steroids," Gensini said.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"