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Experts explain why the US saw a low tornado count in 2016

Many weather events went in the record books this year, as communities were destroyed by catastrophic flooding, hurricanes, wildfires and severe storms. However, the number of reported tornadoes in 2016 will fall short of the annual average for the United States.

The year started with above-average tornado activity when February produced what is likely the second-largest February outbreak on record since 1950. Then conditions became unfavorable for tornadoes.

As of early December 2016, the preliminary tornado reports add up to 976. That is roughly a 25 percent decrease from the number of tornadoes in 2015.

The 976 preliminary count is just slightly higher than the 943 reported in 2013, which is considered the lowest count in the past 10 years. The 10-year average number of tornadoes per year across the U.S. is 1,362, according to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC).

2016 Tornado graph

The lower counts were mostly over the main tornado-prone regions of the U.S., including the Plains and South. These areas experienced drier-than-normal weather during the warm season.

Because tornadoes require a particular mix of ingredients in order to form, the number of tornadoes is highly dependent on the prevailing weather patterns.

"The lack of deep moisture prevented the development of strong and widespread thunderstorms during much of the spring and certainly during the summer and fall seasons," Kottlowski said.

The lack of sustained and widespread thunderstorms reduces the chances for tornado development.

Tornado fatalities were also down in 2016. While the lower death toll may be linked to fewer tornadoes overall, yearly fatality numbers have been decreasing over time, regardless of the tornado count, due to improved warnings and advanced notice.

2016 Tornado fatalities

According to Senior Vice President of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions Mike Smith, one of the most notable outbreaks of 2016 was a tornado swarm that hit near Dodge City, Kansas, on May 24, 2016.

"A single supercell produced at least seven tornadoes in the immediate area. At one point, three tornadoes were on the ground at the same time," Smith said. "Hundreds of tornado chasers, from multiple continents, viewed the storms."

Even though one storm produced multiple tornadoes, the overall count was still nowhere close to previous years.

"The year-to-year numbers of tornadoes vary rather significantly. As recently as 2011, we were having record high numbers of violent tornadoes," Smith said.

As for 2017, forecasters aren't able to predict the severity of the tornado season this far out.

"There is no way to forecast the annual number of tornadoes, and they do fluctuate a great deal from year to year," Smith said.