A tornado can happen anywhere.
But some areas of the world have terrain and topography that enhances the likelihood of severe weather that spawns tornado development. The greater Capital Region is one of them—sort of—according to National Weather Service meteorologist Christina Speciale.
“Because we have a convergence of the Mohawk Valley and the Hudson River cut out over the Capital Region,” Speciale says, “That also can enhance storms as they are coming out of Western New York.”
Gallery: Local tornadoes, wind storms
Warm fronts passing over the cold waters of Lakes Erie and Ontario create storm systems that blow westward, and then the valleys, she says, can have a channeling effect on the storms that may enhance them as they continue west to the region.
Speciale works out of the Albany office, which saw some excitement on May 15 when a system of severe weather spawned a confirmed tornado in Wilton.
The Capital Region has seen more than 80 confirmed tornados since 1960, according to National Weather Service records. (That includes tornados recorded in Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Warren, Washington, Fulton, Montgomery, Herkimer, Schoharie, Columbia and Greene counties.)
A single death in the 12-county region is recorded, from a tornado in Herkimer county in June of 1970. In August of 1973, a tornado that started in Columbia county and crossed the border into Massachusetts killed 4 people there.
The majority of locally recorded tornados have been categorized as EF0 (light damage) or EF1 (moderate damage). Those are both on the low end of the Enhanced Fujita scale, the standard scientific measure of a tornado by its destructive path and estimated wind speed since 2007. The strongest tornados recorded in the region have hit F4 (devastating damage) on the Fujita Scale, which was used prior to 2007.
Last week’s tornado in Wilton registered as an EF1. Gusting 85-90 miles per hour, the funnel lasted 2 minutes and traveled eastward 2 miles before fizzling out, according to the National Weather Service’s storm report. There were no reported deaths or injuries, and minimal damage to trees and structures within the path.
Despite the favorable terrain and recent weather events, Speciale notes, in the grand scheme of tornado severity, the Capital Region shouldn’t be angling for a special moniker like Tornado Alley.
“If you compare what we have with respect to the Plains,” Speciale says, “They would probably laugh at us for what we call a tornado.”
Instead, she notes, it’s the likelihood of strong straight-line winds from westward-moving storm systems that pose the greatest risk to local residents and structures.
“When a tree falls, does it really matter whether it was from straight-line winds or a tornado?” Speciale says. “The point is, a tree could fall from strong winds, and people should take cover.”
The National Weather Service also offers regular training sessions for the public through its SKYWARN program for would-be severe weather spotters. Once trained, volunteers can assist with severe weather reporting.
Here are a few notable tornados spawned in the Capital Region:
June 24, 1960 – F3
Causing $5 million in damage to homes and structures, this tornado touched down in the early evening in the city of Schenectady. It then traveled through Rotterdam, Niskayuna and across the Mohawk river into Saratoga county. According to the NWS storm report, it “touched down at least four times.”
June 18, 1970 – unmeasured
This tornado tore a path through central Herkimer county around 4 p.m., damaging about a thousand trees, leveling a church and killing a woman when a tree fell on her parked car. It’s the only recorded death due to a tornado in the region since records began in 1950. Another woman was injured when the winds picked up her car and tossed it into a field. “The village of Newport was rendered in shambles,” according to the NWS storm report.
August 8, 1973 – F4
Touching down first in Columbia county, this mid-afternoon tornado crossed the border into West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where it tore a 6-mile swath and killed four people there. It caused $250,000 in damage at the Berkshire Farm for Boys in Canaan, New York, and destroyed several homes over the border.
May 31, 1998 – F3
The storm system that spawned this well-known tornado also spawned two other weaker funnels. But the main funnel touched down in Halfmoon before moving into Mechanicville and then on to Stillwater. The other two funnels hit Renssealer county and Albany county near the airport, according to the NWS report. The storm system damaged more than 100 homes, farms and businesses across the three counties, and caused widespread power outages that lasted for several days afterward.
Sept 4, 2011 – EF1
This was a relatively unremarkable tornado in terms of damage to Montgomery county, but it was notable in that it was one of the only tornados in the region actually captured on camera. Rotterdam resident Lindsay Phillips was parked at the Mohawk Travel Plaza along the New York State Thruway when she captured this footage from her car.
May 22, 2014 – EF3
This tornado touched down in Duanesburg in a relatively rural area, causing damage to homes and businesses there and blew over a tractor trailer on Route 20. The powerful storm clocked in at 140 miles per hour and traveled 7 miles across Schenectady county stopping short at the Albany county border.