Northern Tornadoes Project surveys Kingston area storm damage

Two engineers from the Northern Tornado Project launching a drone for an aerial view of local storm damage near Joyceville Road. Photo by Cris Vilela/Kingstonist.

A team from Western University’s Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP) is in the area, surveying damage north of Kingston following this week’s storm.

Kingstonist caught up with two engineers from the team in the rural northeast corner of Kingston, surveying the recent damage caused by a severe storm, which tracked through the region on the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

According to Aaron Jaffe, an engineering researcher for the project, the job of the Northern Tornadoes Project is to document every tornado in Canada.

Jaffe, along with engineering intern Daniel Butt, is visiting hard-hit sites in eastern Ontario to gather data and try to determine if a tornado touched down in any areas. When asked what that involves, Jaffe shared that the project will sometimes send out a ground survey team to investigate the damage and determine what happened.

“There [were] a few storms that day,” he explained. “There was some damage southwest of Ottawa, some damage here. And then, after this, we’re also heading to the Hastings area east of Peterborough to survey some other damage from storms on Tuesday.”

Having been in the area for about an hour and a half ahead of our interview, the team shared that early signs point to a downburst, and not likely a full-fledged tornado.

“We don’t know that for sure yet,” Jaffe made clear. “You know, usually for a tornado, we’re looking for something like a long, thin path with maybe trees down in different directions — something along those lines. There’s a few different signs that we look for.”

Earlier this summer, a tornado did pass through an area north of Kingston, leaving nearly 40,000 customers without power.

“On July 24, there was a pretty large tornado that went from Rockdale to east of Actinolite and through a couple other towns near Marmora and Madoc that we believe to be an EF-2 tornado, at least,” Jaffe confirmed, noting that preliminary reports suggest that the tornado was 56 kilometres long and over a kilometre wide.

The damage from Wednesday’s storm was much less widespread. “So far, it’s just been trees down, mostly down to the east, over an area of… maybe 10 kilometres long and a few kilometres wide,” he illustrated.

Aerial imagery allows the NTP to refine tornado ratings, including the length and width of the storm path, and to collect research data to allow them to continue to improve on their methods. Today, Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, the team was using a drone to survey large sections of the damaged area so they could see potential patterns in the damage path.

But how can the team tell what damage is new or pre-existing?

“That’s one of the many challenges we face in the field,” Jaffe said in reply to our query. “There’s a few different ways to do that. We can check radar to see when certain storms came through. Looking at the damage with enough experience, you can usually tell if it was a day old, a week old, or several months old.”

He went on to note that this year there has been a lot of storm damage, specifically from the derecho that hit hard in the Ottawa area on May 21, 2022. “That damage is kind of everywhere, scattered throughout other surveys that we do, so we’ve got to be careful that we don’t document that damage as new damage,” he said.

Residents who live in areas that storms have swept through can be very helpful when the team is surveying an area. Often, according to Jaffe, they will know whether the damage is recent or not.

“People reporting damages is always valuable, whether it’s posted on Twitter tagging us, or using our website. Everybody should be aware that tornadoes, even in Ontario, can happen well into September and beyond.”

Kingstonist asked the team if they think there have been more storms and tornadoes over the past few years, or if it might only feel that way because of the prevalence of social media sharing and more access to information.

“Well, you know, that’s one of the reasons the Northern Tornado Project exists… historically, over the last 30 [or] 40 years, there are about 60 reported tornadoes per year. But studies showed that we should be getting more like 100 or 200 tornadoes per year. And so, we were wondering what was happening with all those missing tornadoes,” Jaffe replied.

Using tools like satellite imagery, radar, and aerial drones, the project is hoping to capture tornadoes that are not reported — those which occur in rural or remote areas. That, combined with more awareness, due to the work NTP is doing and severe weather awareness in general, is “definitely leading to more tornadoes being reported,” Jaffe stated.

He went on to say it’s too early to know, through their research, if there are increased storm and tornado occurrences due to climate change. “NTP has been around since about 2018, and every year that we collect data is another year that we can get closer to coming to conclusions like that,” he expressed.

“Are there more tornadoes or more severe tornadoes because of climate change? Are they occurring later in the year? Those are all things that we’re working on trying to determine. All the research we do, at the end of the day, is to help better prepare for these tornadoes and better design for them.”

With files from Cris Vilela.

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