Winter Tornado Outbreaks in the United States: What You Need to Know
Tornadoes are not just a summertime weather phenomenon in the United States. While they are more common during the spring and summer months, tornadoes occur during the winter months as well. In fact, winter tornado outbreaks can be particularly dangerous because they often happen at night, making them difficult to spot and giving people less time to seek shelter.
In the United States, the winter tornado season typically runs from December through February, with the peak month being January. During these months, the country experiences an average of 30 reported tornadoes per year.
One of the most significant winter tornado outbreaks in recent history occurred in 2008 when a series of tornadoes hit the Southeast United States. Over a three-day period, more than 50 tornadoes were reported, causing widespread damage, and claiming the lives of 56 people.1 A January outbreak in 1999 spawned 131 total tornadoes, and between 1950 and 2012, there were 10 winter outbreaks that spawned at least 34 tornadoes.2
The conditions that lead to winter tornadoes differ from those that produce spring and summer tornadoes. During the winter months, the polar jet stream shifts southward, bringing with it cold air from the Arctic and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. When these two air masses collide, they can produce the unstable conditions necessary for tornadoes to form. While the greatest risk is in the southern states, many winter tornadoes have occurred further north. Just recently, on January 16, 2023 a tornado touched down in eastern Iowa, and the December 10, 2021 outbreak is the deadliest on record for that month. There were a total of 71 confirmed tornadoes over 24 hours, with the strongest being an EF-4 that devastated Mayfield, KY.3 Another tornado from that system struck an Amazon warehouse in central Illinois, killing six workers.4
Radar image of several tornado warned storms during the 12/10-12/11 tornado outbreak in 2021.
An EF-2 Tornado approaches Burnsville, MS on February 23, 2019.
Despite the potential for danger, many people are not as prepared for winter tornadoes as they are for their spring and summer counterparts. This is in part because winter tornadoes receive less attention and are not as well understood as other types of severe weather. To stay safe during a winter tornado outbreak, it is crucial to be aware of the weather conditions and to have a plan in place. If a tornado warning is issued for your area, seek shelter immediately and stay tuned to your local news for updates on the storm's path.
Winter tornadoes are a real threat in the United States and should not be ignored. By understanding the conditions that lead to their formation and taking the necessary precautions, you can stay safe and protect your family during these dangerous weather events.
3 National Weather Service (1/16: https://www.weather.gov/dvn/summary_01162023)
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