Understanding tornadoes and what to do before and during a storm is crucial to staying safe. This includes knowing when tornado season is, understanding the difference in tornado watches and warnings, and utilizing your own backyard weather station. This will help keep you ahead of fast-changing conditions during severe weather events.
What Is a Tornado?
A tornado, or twister, is a violently rotating column of air in contact with the ground that is produced by a thunderstorm. Tornado wind speeds can range from 70 mph to over 200 mph while causing damage to homes, buildings, and cities. According to NOAA, the average tornado count in the U.S. is about 1,250 twisters per year. The U.S. gets more than 80% of the world’s tornadoes!
When and Where is Tornado Season?
Tornadoes may form at any time, day or night, and during any time of year, but they tend to concentrate when the atmospheric energy is highest, also known as “tornado season.”
When Do Most Tornadoes Form?
- The period from March to June is called “tornado season.”
- About 60% of all U.S. tornadoes strike during these four months.
- Tornado season happens earlier in the spring farther south and later in the season as you move north. Example: Alabama’s tornadoes peak in April while Minnesota’s peak in June.
- Twisters occur mostly between midafternoon and midevening when the ability of the atmosphere to produce large updrafts is the greatest.
- Large, catastrophic tornadoes like ones that struck Joplin, Missouri in 2011; Moore, Oklahoma in 2013; and Rowlett, Texas in 2015 all happened between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. A large tornado can happen in the middle of the night, but that’s much less common.
Where Do Most Tornadoes Form?
Tornadoes occur in every state, but most of them happen east of the Rocky Mountains; it’s here that warm and moisture-laden Gulf air feeds into developing storm systems. “Tornado Alley” is the name given to areas where tornadoes are more frequent; one of these runs from Texas to Nebraska. There’s another sector of America with high tornado counts that is considered Tornado Alley Number 2. This region covers Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Understanding Tornado Watches and Warnings
Weather alerts may become confusing, especially if several different threats (like floods, tornadoes, and hail) are all happening at once. It’s important to understand the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning.
Tornado Watches vs. Tornado Warnings
- A Tornado Watch means conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms that may contain tornadoes. Tornado Watches typically cover a period of four to eight hours and may span across portions of several states.
- A Tornado Warning means a confirmed or suspected tornado is in the area. Be prepared to seek shelter immediately.
- Tornado Warnings are based on either Doppler radar or eyewitness reports. Eyewitness reports are especially helpful for confirming smaller tornadoes because they are harder to distinguish on weather radar.
How To Prepare for a Tornado
Survey your property to determine the safest place for everyone to hide from an imminent tornado.
Basic Shelter-in-Place Guidelines
- Choose a room on the lowest floor that does not share an exterior wall or windows. A bathroom or closet is often the best choice. If you have a safe room or outside shelter, then it’s a no-brainer to shelter in place there. Have a pillow or blanket available to minimize injuries from flying glass or other debris.
- If you live in a mobile home, identify the nearest storm shelter or permanent structure — you may have to drive to reach one. As a last resort, pinpoint a low spot and be prepared to lie in it and seek refuge there.
- Take notice of shelter zones in public places; some businesses will have them marked. If it’s a stormy day, don’t be afraid to ask employees where customers go in case a tornado approaches.
How To Spot Tornadoes on Stormy Days
It’s vital to keep an “eye on the sky” to stay informed when tornado watches are issued for your area. Conditions can change rapidly and you need to be ready.
Two of the best tools in your storm safety arsenal are your own eyeballs and a cell phone. Note how the sky is changing; it can tell you a lot. A low, rotating cloud is a sign of great potential danger; it may be a wall cloud. What does the radar show on your favorite app? For instance, are the storms three hours away or 30 minutes away?
Have Two Sources of Information
Cell towers will sometimes go down during a storm due to power failures, so have a second source for weather information like a NOAA weather radio or a battery-powered TV or car radio.
Monitoring From Home
AcuRite home weather stations offer quality, affordable choices that can give you an edge during severe weather. These advantages may include:
- Detecting pressure drops — this may indicate storms getting closer/stronger
- Measuring rainfall rates — helps determine flash flood threat
- Indicate dangerous wind speeds — damaging winds occur at speeds of 60 mph or greater
- Pinpointing lightning location and frequency within 25 miles
Tornadoes are terrible things, but being properly ready can significantly improve your chances of survival. Identify your shelter zones before tornado season starts, have a simple disaster kit in place, and stay weather-aware. Consider a home weather station as a bonus safety tool in your storm-ready arsenal.
Steve LaNore is a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist with more than 30 years of forecasting and technical experience. He has provided meteorological consulting for everything from insurance adjusters to court cases and is a nine-time award winning author and broadcaster. LaNore has authored two books available on Amazon. He resides in north Texas near beautiful Lake Texoma.