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The Dangers of Wintertime Tornadoes

Updated on March 16, 2017
A nighttime tornado, captured during a brief flash of lightning
A nighttime tornado, captured during a brief flash of lightning

As a result of the annually-occurring period of anxiety known as “tornado season,” most Americans are aware that tornadoes are violent rotating columns of air produced from a particular type of severe thunderstorm known as “super cell thunderstorms.” For those living in areas of the Midwest and Great Plains regions, tornado season is the period late March and early June of every year when the transition of winter to spring weather patterns creates a general period of occasionally unstable weather. In most cases, tornadoes are spawned around regions of clashing weather masses; when particularly strong cold fronts form at the point of advancing cold dry air upon existing warm, humid air.

The formation of a tornado-producing cold front...
The formation of a tornado-producing cold front...

And though the majority of these powerful and dangerous storms occur during the meteorologically unstable (and relatively warmer) early months of the year, the reality is that tornadoes can—and do—occur all year round…including wintertime. Because tornadoes that occur between December and February—though not rare—are infrequent occurrences, most people don’t expect them to happen. This is particularly true for those living in the Southern regions of the continental U.S.

Why? Because the occasionally unstable weather patterns that give rise to the formation of tornadoes tend to shift from the “Tornado Alley” of the Midwest and Plains regions to the South, to “Dixie Alley.” Dixie Alley is a recently acknowledged geographic corridor of frequent tornado activity, stretching from Eastern Texas, encompassing parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and extending into Georgia. While not overall as active in the spring months as the traditional Tornado Alley, activity within this region picks up measurably in the late fall months. However, tornadoes are known to occur within this region in the winter months. In fact, this part of the country almost exclusively experiences most of the tornadoes that do occur in the winter months in the U.S. Even still, many residents living in the South do not expect tornadoes during this time of year. Partially for this reason, wintertime tornadoes tend to be particularly dangerous and deadly for those living in the Southern region of the U.S.

"Dixie Alley."
"Dixie Alley."

Deadlier Winter Tornadoes

Winter tornadoes can be particularly deadly, not because they're stronger, but because they tend to move faster than those produced during other times of the year. This is because tornadoes in the winter and early spring tend to be associated with strong, frontal systems that form in the central regions of the country, and move east along these more organized systems storm systems. During the winter, upper-level winds can be stronger than other seasonal periods. Consequently, severe thunderstorms—including tornado-producing super cell thunderstorms—that do develop can move quicker than those living in these affected regions would normally expect. It’s not uncommon to observe severe thunderstorms moving at speeds greater than 55 mph (88.5 km/h). This can severely limit the lead time by which the National Weather Service (NWS) can issue warnings, and thus shorten the time someone in the soon-to-be effected area has to prepare.

But there are other reasons why wintertime tornadoes tend to be more dangerous than their springtime counterparts. These reasons include:

1. Many Occur During (The) Nighttime Hours

One of the biggest reasons the threat of winter tornadoes need to be taken more seriously is that they frequently tend occur when in the dark. Winter has less daylight hours than other seasons, increasing the odds that a tornado can form after sunset (in many areas for much of the winter, the sun sets before 5:30 p.m. and doesn't rise until after 6:30 a.m. In the spring, while during the spring and summer months, the sun rises and sets earlier and later, respectively). This makes an approaching tornado difficult, if not impossible to see beyond the occasional lighting flash—making avoidance more unlikely. More people are injured and/or killed during nighttime tornadoes than from those that occur during the daytime hours.

Nighttime tornadoes on average across the U.S.
Nighttime tornadoes on average across the U.S.

2. They Occur During an Unexpected Time of Year

Since most tornadoes that develop in the U.S. occur during the spring and early summer months, many people are lulled into a false sense of security when this time of year passes, and the tornado threat subsides. However, tornadoes can develop at any time of year. In the winter, most people are not accustomed to severe weather (outside of blizzards and/or ice storms), and do not prepare as they would say, during the spring months. Because of this, many people aren’t aware of potential severe weather threats ahead of time. In fact, most people assume that a thunderstorm that occurs in the winter does not carry the same threats as one that occurs earlier times in the year.

3. Less Stringent Building Codes

For several reasons, particularly because Southern states tend to experience less harsh winters than Northern states, building codes in these regions tend to be less stringent than they are in other parts of the country. Building codes tend to take into account factors such as the ability of a home to keep its occupants cool during the hot summer months, rather than warm during the winter months. This means less materials, and by extension, less sturdy construction. This scenario means that homes in this region are more vulnerable to fast-moving tornadoes. What’s more, this region of the county also has more manufactured and/or mobile homes than the other parts of the nation as a whole, which makes more individuals—and their homes—vulnerable to the destructive and potentially deadly power of tornadoes.

Manufactured homes are particularly vulnerable to destructive Southern tornadoes
Manufactured homes are particularly vulnerable to destructive Southern tornadoes

Preparation

The major key to preparation for wintertime tornadoes is receiving advanced warning of an approaching storm. Purchasing a weather radio is one way to stay ahead of severe weather. Weather radios are specialized radios that broadcast continually-updated weather information as well as severe weather alerts from the NWS as well as its sister government weather agency, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These radios operate both via electricity and battery-power. In addition, weather applications such as “Tornado” from the American Red Cross can be downloaded (many free-of-charge) to smart phones, tablets, and other internet-linked devices to warn those away from home of impending severe weather. Finally, many local radio and television stations have designed and ready for download their own weather-related internet apps that provide local warnings for potential severe weather.

A weather radio
A weather radio

Another way to prepare for regional tornado seasons is to either purchase or put together a “disaster kit.” A disaster supply kit is a collection of basic items a household may need in the event of an emergency. This kit should be located in a place within a dwelling assessable to all occupants in the event of a tornado of severe weather. Recommended Supplies To Include In A Basic Kit:

  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day, for drinking and sanitation
  • Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Battery-powered radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First Aid kit
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Infant formula and diapers, if you have an infant
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Dust mask or cotton t-shirt, to help filter the air
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)

At home, there are steps that people can take to limit the potential for injury and/or deaths from these storms. In fact, people can—and should—take the relative lull in wintertime tornado activity to prepare the possibility of one of these storms occurring. Those who can afford them should consider installing tornado (or storm) shelters. Storm shelters are structures designed to protect those seeking shelter within them from tornado-strength winds and flying debris. They can be constructed underground or above-ground (although underground provides the most protection against tornadoes). They can be built by homeowners, or installed professionally. However, during the peak tornado season months of March through June, the installation schedules for most storm shelter companies become over-booked, making installation less-than probable. Also, many homes in the Southern U.S. do not have basements due to the presence of basements due to rocky soil conditions and high water tables. These reasons also might preclude having underground storm shelters installed.

Storm shelters are excellent places to ride out a tornado
Storm shelters are excellent places to ride out a tornado

In lieu of having a professionally- (or self-) installed storm shelter, home owners can have interior rooms within their home designated to be reinforced. In many cases, new and existing homes can be outfitted with structures reminiscent of a bank safe or a walk-in freezer. These structures are often made using reinforced concrete or wood and steel—and can double as a closet or storage room. If going this route, the inside storm shelter should be self-contained and anchored to a home's foundation to resist overturning or lifting up during the exceptionally-high winds generated during a tornado.

In a buildings with a basement, head toward the basement during a tornado warning (or when a tornado is spotted approaching), and take shelter under sturdy furniture (such as a heavy table or work bench) for protection. If there are no such furnishings available, get down and cover the body with a mattress, sleeping bag, or some type of cushion. Additionally, it may be imperative to know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above the basement (such as pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.). These heavy objects may fall down through a weakened floor and potentially crush anyone seeking shelter in a basement underneath them, so avoid standing or crouching beneath them. Also, head gear such as a bicycle helmet, can offer a greater amount of protection.

In lieu of a tornado shelter, a basement is the next best place to be during a tornado.
In lieu of a tornado shelter, a basement is the next best place to be during a tornado.

In structures without a basement, or in an apartment building, occupants should head for the lowest floor, and/or small interior room (like a bathroom, closet, hallway, or underneath a stairwell) within the building. Avoid rooms with windows. Occupants should crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down, while covering the head with the hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection if shelter is sought in a bathroom. The purpose of this action is to place as many walls (i.e., barriers) between the shelter room and the winds outside the structure. This room should be designated an impromptu tornado shelter prior to tornado season so that all occupants may know where to go in the event of a tornado. While taking shelter in an interior room, occupants should cover themselves with a thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and/or ceiling fail. A helmet can offer some protection against head injury.


Seek the safety of n interior room in dwellings without a basement
Seek the safety of n interior room in dwellings without a basement

For those living in a manufactured and/or mobile home, the best option in an approaching tornado is to leave immediately. Such dwellings are among the worst places to be during a tornado because they are particularly vulnerable to the high winds produced by these storms, even anchored to a foundation. Find shelter in a nearby sturdy building or a neighbor’s home (its best to make pre-arrangements with a nearby neighbor prior to any severe weather season). Some trailer parks have designated storm shelters. Head to one of those shelters, or to a nearby such designated permanent structure, using a previously-formulated tornado evacuation plan.

Tornadoes, although active primarily in the early spring months and in the Midwest, can occur during any time of the year when conducive weather patterns exist. What’s more, they can occur in any state in the U.S. While it’s generally a time to lower one’s vigilance during the colder periods of the year, it’s is always mindful to at least be aware of the possibility for these destructive storms to develop…particularly when weather patterns become unseasonably warm. Being aware of day-to-day weather forecasts and being proactive in planning ahead—primarily in areas of concern—are the best ways to stay safe from the threat of wintertime tornadoes.

You can find more in-depth information related to tornado safety in publications, such as "The No-Nonsense Guide To Tornado Safety, Enhanced Edition," by Jeffery D. Sims


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