Six tornadoes, one day: The NJ tornado outbreak of July 29, 2021
One Year Ago
The technical definition of a tornado is "a rapidly rotating column of air extending vertically from the surface to the base of a (thunderstorm) cloud."
On average, New Jersey sees 2 to 3 tornadoes a year.
But on July 29, 2021, New Jersey turned into a scene more typical of the Midwest or Great Plains. Six tornadoes touched down in total, causing damage in Essex, Mercer, Burlington, and Ocean counties. A rightful tornado outbreak, right here in the great Garden State.
Yes, it was really one year ago.
We knew the severe weather potential was very high on that warm, humid Thursday, centered around the early evening hours. Although we had pegged damaging winds as the primary threat, I noted in my morning weather blog that "all it will take is a little twisting action, a little shear" to get a few tornadoes.
Six tornadoes in one day only happened once previously in New Jersey since detailed records started in 1950. Seven occurred on November 16, 1989.
In New Jersey
After extensive storm surveys, interviews, and research, the National Weather Service released their final report on the July 29th tornadoes about a week after the event.
#1... The first tornado of the day touched down in North Jersey, near Verona in Essex County. Numerous trees and branches were felled, damaging at least one home. This storm was rated EF-0, the lowest on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
#2... The atmosphere fired up even more with New Jersey's strongest tornado of the day, crossing the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania around 6 p.m. We were extremely lucky this strong EF-2 crossed through mainly wooded areas in Mercer County, lifting just before reaching the Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing. The peak wind gust was estimated at 140 mph.
#3... The same storm cell regenerated, spinning up tornado #3 near Windsor, Mercer County. (Along Perineville Road, in between Route 130 and the NJ Turnpike.) The 105 mph winds did more roof and tree damage.
#4... That thunderstorm would spit out one more twister, in a remote section of the Colliers Mills Wildlife Area in Jackson. It was on the ground only briefly, with EF-0 tree damage and wind speeds estimated at 80 mph. (This tornado was confirmed via aerial photography more than two weeks after the day in question, due to the remoteness of the area.)
#5... Meanwhile, another storm cell entered New Jersey in Burlington County, dropping half dollar size hail near Mt. Holly. That storm would start to spin and twist, dropping another tornado near the Burlington-Ocean county line, in Woodland Township. The EF-1 snapped and uprooted trees along Route 72.
#6... That same supercell cycled one more time, producing our sixth and final tornado of the day over Barnegat, Ocean County just after 9 p.m. It became a waterspout over Barnegat Bay, before striking the High Bar Harbor section of Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. Severe damage to homes, cars, and boats occurred there. The tornado lifted before reaching the ocean side of the island.
Outside New Jersey
In total, the severe weather outbreak of July 28 and 29 spawned 46 tornadoes across seven states. Pennsylvania recorded 13 of those (plus the Mercer County storm referenced above, that started in Bucks County).
The most powerful twister of the day swept through parts of Philadelphia and Bucks counties and was rated an EF-3. Many homes and businesses in Trevose and Bensalem were heavily damaged by the 140 mph winds. And five people were injured.
What Did We Learn?
In an article I penned the morning after, I presented some "lessons learned" from the tornado outbreak.
Takeaway #1? Yes, tornadoes happen in New Jersey.
But you knew that. We saw a total of 13 tornado touchdowns in New Jersey in 2021. The second highest annual tally on record for the state. (First place is 1989, which had 19. Third place is a tie between 2019 and 1987, with 9 a piece.)
In most years, a sextet of tornadoes would have been a clear candidate for number one on our list of the top weather events of the year. But on September 1, 2021, catastrophic flooding and
Thankfully, 2022 has been a much quieter year for tornadic activity so far. New Jersey has seen only two confirmed tornadoes this year: an EF-0 that crossed the Garden State Parkway near Hazlet, Monmouth County in May; and an EF-1 in Blackwood, Camden County in June.
The July 29th tornado outbreak was significant, scary, and (for some) life-changing. As you reflect on this severe weather event from only a year ago, it would be a good opportunity to review your own severe weather safety plan. Do you have multiple ways of receiving watches and warnings? Do you have a designated safe place in your home to seek shelter during a tornado or high wind emergency? What about your plan for work, school, etc?
Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before our next tornado outbreak in the Garden State.
Special thanks to the following sources of data, information, and photos for this recap:
—NJ State Climatologist Dave Robinson
—National Weather Service forecast offices in Mt. Holly and Upton
—Storm Events Database at the National Centers for Environmental Information
—My colleague and friend Dan Alexander
Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. Follow Dan on Facebook or Twitter for your latest weather forecast updates.
KEEP READING: What to do after a tornado strikes