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Breaking down the record 61 tornadoes that hit Iowa on Dec. 15, 2021

Tornado surveys have improved drastically over the past few decades, with new technology and tools readily available to National Weather Service meteorologists.

DES MOINES, Iowa — 61 tornadoes

That's the count through Jan. 10, 2022 from a historic and unprecedented derecho on Dec. 15, 2021. It has never happened before in December: a widespread wind event like what Iowa experienced that day.

Luckily, it was nothing like what happened in August 2020 where winds easily exceeded 100 mph in many locations across the state. Instead, over five dozen tornadoes touched down in a short amount of time as the line of storms raced at faster-than-highway speed limits across Iowa.

The problem with tornadoes touching down in December? 

Marks of damage, particularly across crops or fields, becomes difficult with the harvest long past.

Most of the tornadoes were not on the ground for very long, and with how fast the system was moving, it was difficult to distinguish between straight-line wind and tornadic damage.

Credit: WOI

But, thanks to help from space, extremely high-resolution satellite data helped National Weather Service meteorologists find damage paths, even if they were in the middle of winter-overtaken fields.

"10 or 20 years ago, we had no ability to see these small circulations either in the radar data or in the satellite data after the fact," said Brad Small, an NWS meteorologist.

He added it is a new tool that's only been in their toolbox for the past eight years. When it comes to structures, it is not only about the type of building that was hit by a tornado.

Credit: WOI

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"We look at not only what the structure is, but how well it was built, how old it was, and a variety of other factors," Small added.

Small wrapped it up with a pretty fruitful conclusion: "It's kind of apples and oranges. Yes, it is setting new records. But it's really because the bar has been raised as far as the ability to detect the storms while they're in progress, and in the post-storm analysis."

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