Folklore tells us that if March comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb. Unfortunately, March 2022 roared like a lion from beginning to end, with at least 210 confirmed tornadoes. That breaks the previous record of 192 in 2017.
April probably won’t be much better. Experts predict anywhere from 200 to 275 tornadoes next month and as many as 1,475 throughout the year. While record-breaking numbers like that are distressing, what may be even more unsettling is the change meteorologists have seen in both when and where tornadoes pop up. Historically, tornado season starts in March and lasts until June with states in Tornado Alley seeing the most activity. But scientists say the center of tornado activity actually appears to be more towards the south and east.
Is Tornado Alley shifting because of climate change or have scientists gotten better at spotting twisters? We take a look at what the latest research indicates to help you be better prepared.
Where Is Tornado Alley?
There’s no hard and fast rule to say where Tornado Alley actually is. The term was first used in 1952 as a title for a research project that focused on Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. As the term became more popular, the area it describes stretched to include states like Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Some add in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and even parts of eastern Colorado.
Tornado Alley has a high risk for twisters because the area has flat, dry terrain that is often a meeting point for warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains. When these two types of air masses collide, the warm air rises and the cool air sinks. The result is severe thunderstorms with rotating winds, known as supercells. A funnel cloud may form if the winds in a supercell move at different speeds.
Is There a New Tornado Alley?
The data apparently supports the claims that Tornado Alley is shifting from its traditional location. For example, one recent study showed tornado frequency has increased in the Midwest and Southeast over the last four decades. Information compiled by USA Today also found that 20 states experienced increased tornado activity between the years 2000 and 2019 compared with 1980 and 1990.
Many states outside of the traditional Tornado Alley boundaries saw a significant increase in tornado activity, including
- Alabama, up 303 tornadoes.
- Mississippi, up 286 tornadoes.
- Kentucky, up 205 tornadoes.
Experts also think that tornado season also may be expanding. Tornado season unofficially starts in March and runs through June. However, the data compiled by USA Today show that recent years have seen more tornado swarms ﹘ outbreaks of 10 or more tornadoes from a single storm system ﹘ popping up both earlier and later in the season.
Is Tornado Alley Shifting Because of Climate Change?
The jury is still out on whether the shift in tornado activity is due to climate change or not. Experts generally agree that there are more twisters in the southeastern states, but they cannot directly link this to climate change. Several studies have found that warming temperatures make the conditions that lead to severe thunderstorms more likely.
On the other hand, we may be seeing more tornadoes because of:
- Better radar technology. Scientists can now identify storms that may produce tornadoes.
- Population growth. More people in areas impacted by tornadoes means more eyewitness reports.
More research needs to be done to determine if there’s a direct link between tornadoes and climate change.
How to Prepare for Tornadoes
Tornado Alley shifting towards the southeast puts more people at risk, but you can take steps to keep everyone safe. The first step is figuring out how likely tornadoes are in your area. You can do this with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index, an online tool that calculates your county’s risk for 18 natural hazards, including tornadoes.
Next you need to learn the signs that a tornado is on the way. For example, you want to be on the lookout for:
- A greenish or dark sky.
- Large hail.
- A wall cloud, or a cloud that suddenly forms beneath the base of a cumulonimbus cloud.
- A funnel cloud, or a rotating column of condensed water droplets.
- A loud roar that sounds like a freight train.
You should note, however, that tornadoes aren’t always visible. They can be blocked by hills, trees, buildings, and even rain. That’s why it’s also important to pay attention to your local weather report and stay inside if the conditions are right for a tornado. Your community may also have an advanced emergency warning system. If you hear the siren, look for shelter.
These and other tornado safety tips can help you avoid harm if a tornado hits your area, but part of your preparation should also be a review of your homeowners insurance. Most policies cover damage caused by wind storms like tornadoes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to double check.