The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has wreaked havoc on too many activities to count. Add storm chasing to the list! Springtime usually brings all the excitement for the daredevils running towards monstrous storms and tornados. This year, storm chasers not only face the danger of unpredictable weather events, but also the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has shaken several types of storm chasers. Solo goers who chase as a hobby, businesses that chase with tours, meteorologists and/or professors that chase for research and reporting.
Though Covid-19 dominates the news cycle these days, it is important to be aware of the other threats facing Americans as we move into Spring. Today we will be talking Tornadoes, which have already caused some deadly damage this year ahead of the peak season. As of this writing, 34 people have already lost their lives to tornadoes in the US. Read more
Severe weather is upon us in the United States with damaging tornadoes hitting the southern states in late January and late February. One EF4 tornado also tore through Alabama and Georgia in early March, the worst of the roughly 100 reported tornado total so far in 2019. As we move into the spring and summer months, conditions historically become more volatile. Specifically from March to June, the highest chance of severe weather spreads north and east across the Plains, the Midwest, and Southeast. Like Hurricanes and Wildfires, Tornadoes have a peak season too.
It seems strange to be talking about weather events that peak in the summer, like tornadoes, while we still have massive winter storms impacting much of the Northeastern United States. However, now is typically when we start shifting our focus onto the weather incidents of the upcoming summer season. The end of February is when tornado season starts to ramp up, and will typically peak around mid-June.
So far this year severe weather has been relatively mild across this United States. Cold air across the central United States has kept the warm moist air at bay, limiting the formation of the violent thunderstorms that can produce a tornado. Since December, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has recorded 75% fewer severe weather events, making it the calmest period in 14 years. Thankfully, the few severe storms that have managed to develop haven’t spun off the outbreak of tornadoes that were experienced last year. Comparably, by this time last year over 200 tornadoes had been reported. As we move into the spring and summer months, however, conditions historically become more volatile. Like Hurricanes and Wildfires, Tornadoes have a peak season too.
Where is Tornado Alley?
As we move out of winter, warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico begins to creep up the infamous “tornado alley”. Tornado Alley is the swath of the country’s midsection from Northern Texas to the Canadian border. There are no official boundaries for tornado alley and the term itself is more of a media buzz word rather than scientific distinction. The term, however, isn’t unwarranted. Almost a quarter of all tornadoes occur in this area (depicted in the map below). Although tornadoes can happen across the US, the tornadoes that form in tornado alley are frequently the largest and most destructive.
The Enhanced Fujita Scale for Measuring Tornadoes
Like Hurricanes, tornadoes are measured by their wind speeds. Also like hurricanes, they are measured from 0-5, but their categories are based on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The smallest tornadoes swirl between 65-85 mph which can cause localized damage. On the other end of the scale, the largest tornadoes can tear through counties and cause widespread devastation from their 200+ mph winds. The highest recorded wind speed on earth was measured at 302 mph in 1999 by a mobile weather station during an EF5 event near Oklahoma City, OK. RedZone has found that over the last few years, NOAA has actually developed a way to show tornado paths and destruction. Now anyone can track near-real-time damage from major severe weather events using NOAA’s Damage Viewer.
Outbreak of Tornadoes
In the early morning hours of January 21st, a band of severe weather moved into the Gulf of Mexico region, producing a number of deadly tornadoes. More than 20 funnel touchdowns were reported in total. The worst tornado of the day hit near Purvis, Mississippi, and was rated EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale which rates tornado intensity. The funnel itself was nearly 900 yards wide, and the storm cut a path length of over 30 miles. Sadly, four people died in this storm, and the number of homes and businesses that were damaged is still being assessed.
The following day (Jan 22), the Storm Prediction Center issued a High-Risk Severe Weather Event for the entire Gulf Coast region, the first such warning since 2014. In the subsequent 24-hour period, eight more tornadoes touched down. The worst of the storm system decimated twenty homes with a tornado (estimated > EF2) impacting a trailer park near Adel, Georgia. Survivors described the early morning chaos as “horrific”, with trailers apparently being tossed like rag dolls by the twister. To date, 15 people are confirmed to have died within Southern Georgia over the weekend.
By January 23rd, the storms weakened, though two more tornadoes were reported in Florida. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported and only minor damage to a pier and a mobile home park was confirmed.
Government Assistance to Affected Areas
A state of emergency was declared in Mississippi and Georgia in the aftermath of the weekend’s severe weather. FEMA has deployed to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. The Red Cross also deployed to Georgia on January 22nd to assist in relief efforts. Freshly sworn-in President Trump has promised relief assistance to the affected areas and also offered “our sincere condolences for the lives taken”.
Weekend Severe Weather Facts
- Timeline: January 21-23
- Locations: Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida
- Number of Tornadoes: 34+
- Highest Reported Winds: 145 mph
- Casualties: 20+
- Damages: Estimated $200 Million
- News Article: WunderBlog
NOAA, Wunderground, Storm Prediction Center