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Mojave Desert And Southern Great Basin Tornado Climatology

Chris Stachelski

Hiko Tornado on August 31, 2000

Hiko Tornado On August 31, 2000. Photo Credit: Howard Blum.


Although rare, tornadoes do occur in the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin. This page provides information on the tornado climatology for the area served by the National Weather Service office in Las Vegas. For more information about tornadoes in general, the Storm Prediction Center has an excellent question and answer page.

Tornadoes are now rated by the Enhanced Fujita Scale. Prior to 2007, the original Fujita Scale was used to rate the intensity of tornadoes. This scale was developed in 1971. Before 1971, some older tornadoes were later rated based on the damage description provided in Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena. Due to a lack of data, you will notice several tornadoes that took place in the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin were never rated. More information on why the original Fujita Scale was revised to the Enhanced Fujita Scale is available from the Storm Prediction Center.

Officially, 47 tornadoes have been documented in the area served by the National Weather Service in Las Vegas since modern tornado records started in 1950. The vast amount of land that is unpopulated and not easily viewed or accessed by humans in this area is a significant factor that likely results in the official number being an undercount. Additionally, many tornadoes are obscurred by the mountainous terrain with only the funnel visible but the portion of the funnel in contact with the ground being out of sight. This makes it extremely difficult to determine whether a funnel actually made contact with the ground. Even in cases where a funnel was observed only barren dirt or sparse vegetation exists which would limit any damage and any clues as to whether the funnel ever made contact with the ground.

Las Vegas Review-Journal Headline of the June 7, 1964 thunderstorm.

Las Vegas Review-Journal Headline of the June 7, 1964 thunderstorm.

The earliest reference in any literature to a tornado in southern Nevada was on July 31, 1949 when reports of a tornado hitting the Virgin Valley were published in area newspapers. Hay crops were destroyed and a number of trees were uprooted. In Mesquite, the storm reportedly blew hay over the mountains. The oldest official dataset report of a tornado in this area was on June 7, 1964 in the Las Vegas Valley. However, despite this thunderstorm even making front page headlines in the Las Vegas Review-Journal little detail on this tornado exists. The official report describes a funnel cloud that moved from near Mt. Charleston to about 5 or 6 miles north of Thunderbird Field (which is now the North Las Vegas Airport) in which at some point the funnel touched the ground. This part of Las Vegas was then open desert, so no damage was reported. However, this remains one of the most intense thunderstorms ever documented in Las Vegas. Winds at Thunderbird Field were reported to have held steady at 85 mph for 3 to 4 minutes and gusted to 100 mph at one point as measured by wind equipment there.

A rare severe weather outbreak in southern Nevada took place on March 30, 1992 triggered by an upper-level low located near the coast of southern California. Showers and thunderstorms were set off across the area with several reports of funnel clouds received in the Las Vegas Valley, including at least one captured on film and home video in the Green Valley area of Henderson. Two of the funnel clouds touched down in the Las Vegas Valley and were confirmed as tornadoes.

Tornado damage to a house in the Las Vegas Valley on March 30, 1992.

Tornado damage to a house in the Las Vegas Valley on March 30, 1992. Photo Credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal.

NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) Tornadoes By Decade

The number of tornadoes by decade in the current NWS Las Vegas CWA as reported in Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena.

Starting in the 1970s a noticeable increase in the number of tornadoes exists in the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin. This is likely due to an increased awareness in tornadoes occurring in this part of the country as well as an increase in population (which would increase the odds of a tornado being observed by someone). The 1990s were the most active decade with a sharp drop after that. During the 1990s, Doppler radar was introduced and this promoted more awareness of potentially tornadic storms. This may have resulted in more storms either being investigated and storm surveyed later in order to obtain ground truth. Additionally, the advent of the internet and social media also has opened up many more opportunities to obtain images and reports of tornadoes than the era in which phone calls and hard copies of newspapers were often the dominant sources for obtaining reports of storm damage.

NWS Las Vegas CWA Tornadoes By Hour

The number of tornadoes by the hour of occurrence in the current NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) as reported in Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena using the start time. All times are in standard time.

The graph above shows the number of tornadoes by hour of occurrence using the start time of the tornado. No nighttime tornadoes have ever been officially reported in the current NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA). The earliest tornado ever (using standard time) was on August 1, 1983 in Landers, California which was reported at 10:50 AM PST. The latest tornado ever was in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on July 22, 1984 at 8:00 PM PST. The most active hour for tornadoes to develop was the 4 PM hour which had 10. The 11 AM hour was the next most active with 9.

NWS Las Vegas CWA Tornadoes By Month

The number of tornadoes by the month of occurrence in the current NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) as reported in Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena.

Tornadoes have been reported officially in every month of the year in the NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) except for February. The leading month is August with 14 tornadoes while July ranks second with 7 tornadoes. The majority of tornadoes in this area occur during the North American Monsoon. During the winter, strong cold areas of low pressure in the mid and upper levels of the atmosphere can produce thunderstorms and although most are low-topped (having tops of only 25,000-30,000 feet), a few of these can become strong enough to produce hail and on rare instances a tornado. The fall season and to a lesser extent the spring when the atmosphere is in a state of transition provides a set-up sometimes where low pressure in the mid and upper atmosphere sets up in a position where it pulls an influx of moisture from the south into the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin and the environment becomes favorable for thunderstorms to develop. Such a pattern would also result in greater shear which would also favor thunderstorms becoming more organized and conducive under the right circumstances to produce a tornado.

Number of NWS Las Vegas CWA Tornadoes By County

The number of tornadoes by the county of occurrence in the current NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) as reported in Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena. San Bernardino County and Nye County numbers only include the areas served by NWS Las Vegas.

Tornadoes are much more common in the southern portions of the NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) than in northern portions. This is due to two reasons. First, the southern parts of the area get more thunderstorms annually than areas further north with the largest number of thunderstorm days over Mohave County. Secondly, the southern portions are more populated increasing the odds of a tornado being observed. Tornadoes are most commonly reported in towns, along highways and by airplane pilots. The greatest number of tornadoes was near Kingman, Las Vegas, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Morongo Basin and the Barstow-Daggett area. Only one tornado has ever crossed into multiple states in this area. The Tri-State tornado of April 21, 2001 formed in San Bernardino County before moving into Clark County and then entered Mohave County where it dissipated.

Tornado near the southern tip of Nevada on April 21, 2001.

Tornado near the southern tip of Nevada on April 21, 2001. Photo Credit: Spotter.

Landspout 10 miles north of Independence, California on November 30, 2012.

A landspout 10 miles north of Independence, California on the afternoon of November 30, 2012. A landspout is a tornado that does not arise from organized storm-scale rotation and therefore is not associated with a wall cloud (visually) or a mesocyclone (on radar). Landspouts typically are observed beneath cumulonimbus or towering cumulus clouds (often as no more than a dust whirl), and essentially are the land-based equivalents of waterspouts. Photo Credit: California Highway Patrol.

Tornado near Nelson, Nevada on August 4, 2014.

Tornado near the turnoff to Nelson's Landing on August 4, 2014. Photo Credit: Allen Lynn.

Most tornadoes in the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin are short-lived and last only a few minutes. The longest track was 5 miles from a tornado that formed 16 miles southwest of Kingman on November 22, 1996. Widths of most tornadoes also tend to be small with many having a rope-like look to them. Only one tornado in the current NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area (CWA) has ever been rated a F2 which took place on September 7, 1982 six miles north-northwest of Joshua Tree.

Below is a list of all the officially documented tornadoes in the County Warning Area served by the National Weather Service in Las Vegas. This information was taken from Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena.

Officially Documented Tornadoes In The NWS Las Vegas County Warning Area Since 1950
Location Date Time Intensity Path Length Path Width Description
Clark County, NV
Las Vegas Valley June 7, 1964 2:10 PM PST Not rated. Unknown Unknown A funnel cloud moved from near Mt. Charleston to 5 or 6 miles north of what is now the North Las Vegas Airport. The funnel touched down for a brief period but was over open desert.
East Las Vegas August 12, 1971 5:59 PM PST F0 Unknown 130 yards A tornado was observed by several train engineers from about 8 miles away in the Pittman area of East Las Vegas and lasted 2 minutes. The tornado extended from the 3,000 foot base of a thunderstorm cloud and reached the ground like a curved rope. The tornado touched down in a lightly developed area and no damage was reported. Swirls of dust at ground level were observed with the tornado.
Callville Bay August 20, 1975 3:01 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown The National Park Service reported a tornado struck Callville Bay with winds estimated at over 80 mph. Numerous trailors were damaged and several boats were sunk or damaged.
Lake Mead NRA July 22, 1984 8:00 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown The National Park Service reported a tornado touched down in the Clark County portion of the Lake Mead NRA north of Willow Beach for a short distance.
5 miles ENE of Indian Springs May 28, 1986 6:08 PM PST F0 3 miles 150 yards A tornado was reported by a meteorologist from the nuclear support office at Desert Rock 5 miles east-northeast of Indian Springs over the Nellis AFB Bombing Range. A crooked rope tornado was reported touching the ground for about 8 minutes over a dry lake bed that extended from a cloud base of about 12,000 feet.
Moapa September 17, 1989 11:30 AM PST F1 0.5 mile 100 yards A tornado touched down in Moapa damaging or destroying several mobile homes and buildings. At least 4 power poles were twisted and several trees were uprooted. Damage was placed at $500,000 in 1989 dollars.
Henderson October 14, 1989 5:25 PM PST F1 Unknown Unknown The Henderson Police Department reported a tornado tore the roof of a home and slammed it into the next door neighbor's automobile. Several other cars were tossed about.
22 miles E of Las Vegas January 30, 1990 2:20 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown Two pilots reported a tornado touched down 22 miles east of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Valley March 30, 1992 11:20 AM PST F0 0.5 mile 15 yards The Nevada Highway Patrol reported a tornado 2 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Valley March 30, 1992 11:45 AM PST F1 1.5 miles 30 yards A tornado touched down near the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard. One house was lifted off of its foundation and 2 other houses lost their roofs.
Henderson September 11, 1998 11:56 AM PST F0 0.1 mile 20 yards A small tornado tore the roof off a Henderson warehouse and destroyed a large block wall at a service station a short distance away.
Tip of southern Nevada April 21, 2001 11:37 AM PST F1 1 mile 50 yards A small tornado was spotted over open terrain near the 3 state junction of California, Nevada and Arizona. This tornado then moved into Mohave County, Arizona.
Nelson's Landing Turnoff August 4, 2014 11:40 AM PST EF0 0.08 mile 25 yards A small tornado briefly touched down in open desert east of Highway 95 near the Nelson's Landing turn off road and was caught on camera.
Esmeralda County, NV
Coaldale Area August 27, 1982 2:18 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown A pilot reported a tornado. No damage was reported.
Lincoln County, NV
Lake Valley May 22, 1967 11:45 AM PST Not rated. 1 mile 70-80 yards A tornado occurred in an open country area of Lake Valley. No damage was reported.
30 miles NE of Yucca Flat October 8, 1974 4:00 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown A tornado occurred in a restricted area of the Nevada Test Site and was reported by 2 AEC meteorologists. Due to the location of the tornado, no other information is known.
2 miles S of Hiko August 7, 1987 4:00 PM PST F0 0.1 mile 10 yards A tornado touched down 2 miles south of Hiko. It tore the roof off one home and uprooted several trees. Numerous bales of hay disappeared.
Worthington Mountains October 6, 1988 1:05 PM PST F0 3.0 miles 10 yards A helicopter pilot reported a tornado 75 miles southeast of Tonopah near the Worthington Mountain Range. The tornado was on the ground for about 12 minutes and was also observed by several people in Rachel. No damage was reported.
6 miles ESE of Pioche September 5, 1998 2:49 PM PST F0 0.1 mile 20 yards The Lincoln County Sheriff reported a tornado in an open field between Pioche and Echo Canyon State Park. Some irrigation pipes were damaged.
5 miles N of Hiko August 31, 2000 4:40 PM PST F1 1 mile Unknown A tornado touched down 5 miles north of Hiko on a ridgetop and was on the ground for no more than 2 minutes. No damage was reported.
3.8 WSW of Crestline July 24, 2012 12:45 PM PST EF0 0.7 mile 50 yards A BLM wilderness ranger saw a tornado touch down briefly in open country. The tornado was estimated to be on the ground for about 5 minutes. No damage was observed.
Nye County, NV
25 miles SW of Mercury July 16, 1987 4:05 PM PST F0 0.2 mile 10 yards A spotter reported a small tornado moving west to east that was breaking up when observed. No damage was reported.
Amargosa Valley July 7, 1991 3:00 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown A tornado was spotted but no damage was reported.
30 miles SE of Tonopah August 6, 1992 11:35 AM PST F0 Unknown Unknown A tornado was reported at the north end of the Nevada Test Site.
Inyo County, CA
10 miles N of Independence November 30, 2012 12:45 PM PST EF0 1.64 miles 100 yards A landspout was observed and photographed 10 miles north of Independence near Highway 395 by California Highway Patrol.
San Bernardino County, CA Deserts
3 miles NW of Joshua Tree October 22, 1974 1:55 PM PST F1 Unknown Unknown A tornado touched down 3 miles northwest of Joshua Tree damaging 2 small vacation homes. Tile was yanked from the roofs and siding was damaged. Hail a half an inch in diameter accompanied the tornado.
6 miles NNW of Joshua Tree September 7, 1982 1:30 PM PST F2 Unknown Unknown 3 houses, 2 cabins and 2 cars were destroyed by a tornado that touched down 6 miles north-northwest of Joshua Tree. 2 woman in one of the houses were slightly injured by flying debris..
Landers August 1, 1983 10:50 AM PST F0 Unknown Unknown A tornado moving south and then west damaged 2 cabins, a house, a pick-up truck and a motor home before dissipating. At least 3 people reported seeing the tornado. 1 man suffered a cut to his forehead as the tornado ripped the roof off of his house..
Twentynine Palms July 27, 1987 4:15 PM PST F0 1.5 miles 50 yards A funnel cloud moving slowly to the northeast was reported near Bullion Mountain Road and Mesa Drive. At Mojave Road, the funnel began to travel to the southeast and became a tornado east of Normglow Road, a half of a mile north of Amboy Road. The Captain of the Wonder Valley Fire Station saw an apparent funnel cloud one-half mile northwest of Amboy Road and Pinto Mountain Road. The tornado was estimated to have had a diameter of 150 feet and a height of near 800 feet. Dirt, rocks and leaves were seen swirling at the base of the tornado. The tornado moved southeast toward the intersection of Amboy and Pinto Mountain Roads and remained stationary for several minutes and then began moving south toward Two Mile Road. The condensation tubes dissipated about one-quarter to one-half mile south of Amboy Road and the debris cloud continued traveling south across Two Mile Road.
2 miles E of Daggett August 14, 1990 4:45 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown A civilian observer reported a tornado about 2 miles east of Daggett. Movement and size were unknown.
Daggett September 29, 1990 4:00 PM PST F0 Unknown Unknown An observer at the Barstow-Daggett Airport reported a tornado briefly touched down. Movement and size were unknown.
16 miles S of Needles August 7, 1997 5:33 PM PST F0 0.1 mile 25 yards A Mohave County Sheriff reported a tornado briefly touching down in open country near Interstate 40.
5 miles SW of Nipton August 25, 1998 11:30 AM PST F0 1 mile 20 yards A small tornado was caught on videotape about 5 miles southwest of Nipton.
9 Miles North of Needles Airport April 21, 2001 11:35 AM PST F1 1 mile 50 yards A small tornado was reported near the 3 state junction of California, Nevada and Arizona. The torndo formed in San Bernardino County and then moved into far southern Clark County before moving into Mohave County.
Joshua Tree July 7, 2001 12:45 PM PST F0 1 mile 1 yard A tornado touched down in Joshua Tree causing minor damage to homes and businesses. The most significant reports included damage to a roof of an abandoned house and a patio cover torn off another home.
Mohave County, AZ
11 miles E of Kingman August 8, 1972 3:00 PM MST F0 2 miles 300 yards A funnel cloud touched the ground for about an hour in open country. The storm moved to the west-southwest and was accompanied by one-half inch hail.
8 Miles S of Bullhead City September 18, 1972 4:00 PM MST F1 Unknown Unknown A tornado lasting less than 1 minute caused considerable damage to homes in the Mohave Mesa area. A man was hospitalized due to his injuries caused when his mobile home was severely damaged by the wind.
80 miles W of Grand Canyon Airport August 6, 1974 1:55 PM MST F1 Unknown Unknown A pilot reported a small tornado briefly touched down in open country 80 miles west of the Grand Canyon Airport.
Colorado City August 12, 1974 5:00 PM MST F1 Unknown Unknown A small tornado lifted an 8 by 16 foot roof off a hay shelter, whirled it through the air and set it down 28 feet away. It also picked up the complete siding of a house under construction.
Wikieup March 14, 1979 1:30 PM MST Not rated. Unknown Unknown A small tornado moved through Wikieup from west to east. It overturned a trailor in a trailor court and tipped over a travel trailor attached to a parked truck trapping 3 people inside. They were all injured. Total damages were $5,000 in 1979 dollars.
Dolan Springs August 6, 1983 6:00 PM MST F1 0.2 mile 20 yards A small tornado touched the ground and caused a house trailor to explode.
Colorado City December 27, 1983 6:00 PM MST F1 0.4 mile 50 yards During a violent thunderstorm with heavy rain and hail, a small tornado touched down in the center of Colorado City. It moved from northwest to southeast and ripped metal roofs and sidings from sheds and warehouses and wrapped them around trees and powerlines. The lines were eventually broken and the town was thrown into a blackout. A number of houses sustained roof and window damage. Large trees were uprooted and power poles were knocked down.
15 miles E of Littlefield April 26, 1994 1:30 PM MST F0 3 miles 20 yards An observer reported a tornado skipping along the ground for about 10 minutes over open land 15 miles east of Littlefield.
20 miles NE of Kingman July 13, 1995 2:30 PM MST F0 0.1 mile 10 yards A small tornado was reported to have briefly touched down over open country south of Hackberry and Valentine between 2:30 PM and 2:45 PM MST.
6 miles NE of Kingman November 22, 1996 3:50 PM MST F0 2 miles 50 yards A tornado observed near Kingman touched down in a field and caused significant damage to a barn and tool shed. Doors were torn from their hinges, windows were broken and part of the roof was blown off.
18 miles W of Kingman November 22, 1996 4:30 PM MST F0 0.1 mile 50 yards A small tornado touched down briefly in the Golden Valley area just south of Highway 68. There was no damage.
8 miles W of Kingman November 22, 1996 5:02 PM MST F0 0.1 mile 100 yards A tornado touched down near U.S. Highway 93 five miles west of Kingman. No damage was reported.
16-18 miles SW of Kingman November 22, 1996 5:36 PM MST F1 5 miles 400 yards The largest tornado observed in Mohave County on November 22, 1996 touched down near Interstate 40 about 18 miles southwest of Kingman. The tornado was estimated to be one-quarter of a mile wide and traveled on eastward track for about 20 minutes.
4-5 miles S of Bullhead City April 21, 2001 12:39 PM MST F1 1 mile 50 yards A small tornado was spotted over open terrain near the 3 state junction of California, Nevada and Arizona. This tornado begn at 11:35 AM PST in San Bernardino County, California and moved across a small part of Clark County, Nevada before moving into Mohave County at 12:39 PM MST. The tornado then dissipated at 12:50 PM MST.
Kingman October 10, 2010 4:43 PM MST EF0 1.23 miles 25 yards An EF-0 tornado, with winds estimated at 75 mph, briefly touched down twice in the Rancho Santa Fe subdivision of Kingman, damaging tiles on the roofs of two homes.

 


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