Has eastern Ontario become a tornado hot spot?

Weather experts say technology has changed how tornadoes are tracked and counted and there isn't a simple answer when it comes to recent patterns.

Since 2018, there have been 9 confirmed tornadoes in the region

Tornadoes touch down in southeastern Ontario

3 years ago
Duration 1:20
Several tornadoes touched down south of Ottawa on Sunday, causing damage in the communities of Camden East, Oxford Mills and Kinmount.

Technology has made it easier to track and count tornadoes, but understanding the development of the violent weather is more complicated.

Environment Canada confirmed nine tornadoes in eastern Ontario and west Quebec since 2018, including the tornadoes that tore through Ottawa and Gatineau on Sept. 21, 2018.

The most recent twisters touched down in Camden East and Oxford Mills, Ont., this past Sunday. That same afternoon, another tornado touched down near Peterborough, in Kinmount, Ont.

Environment Canada meteorologists say it's hard to be definitive about whether the region has seen an increase in tornadoes. The weather service doesn't have a mandate to catalogue every tornado; rather, they log reports of damage and do surveys on the ground.

Smart phones, social media and dedicated storm chasers have all contributed to the increase in reports of confirmed tornadoes, according to warning preparedness meteorologist Peter Kimbell. 

Environment Canada may have missed the touchdown in Oxford Mills, for example, if there hadn't been a storm chaser watching for extreme weather, he said. 

"If that one individual hadn't seen it or posted to us, I don't even think we'd know about it because it caused very little damage to anything other than trees."

More tornado warnings

Another factor that Kimbell said may make tornadoes seem more frequent is the use of direct-to-cellphone push alerts based on radar detection.

"We have a lot of tools at our disposal and we make use of them to protect people," he said.

While Ottawa or Gatineau residents received emergency alerts, neither city saw a tornado this weekend.

Kimbell said he's reluctant to conclude there could be any increase in tornadoes in the region, especially since historic data was collected in such a different way than it is now.

He said Ontario typically sees 12 to 13 tornadoes in a given year, mostly between Windsor and Barrie, and last year, despite the tornado that surprised Orléans, was a relatively calm year overall.

WATCH | 2019's Orléans tornado

Video footage shows Sunday's tornado from the air

4 years ago
Duration 0:58
Jonathan Hilaire shot this video from the skies on Sunday evening as an EF1 tornado touched down in Ottawa's east end.

Capturing 'missing tornadoes'

Greg Kopp, lead researcher for the Northern Tornado Project at Western University, said his group is using satellite imagery, drones and public data to paint a more complete picture of where funnel clouds are touching down.

"We're trying to capture those missing tornadoes," Kopp said.

"Numbers going forward are going to be larger than they were in the past, just because we have these changing methodologies. We're going to learn more about that and find out where tornadoes occur."

WATCH | Monday's cleanup

Cleanup continues after tornadoes sweep through eastern Ontario towns

3 years ago
Duration 2:13
Residents of three communities south of Ottawa are cleaning up after tornadoes swept through the region on Aug. 3. But one meteorologist says the storms likely don’t herald a “new normal” for the area.

Kopp said researchers were able to find evidence of another tornado in the outbreak that happened on Sept. 21, 2018, which wasn't spotted using typical on-the-ground surveys. 

While researchers have been surprised by the number of tornadoes they've found in eastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec in recent years, Kopp said more data will be needed to understand why the tally has gone up.

"We don't know right now if it's just part of a cycle that hasn't been captured before. Some of these occur on 20- and 30-year time frames. We don't know if it's related to climate change," he said.

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