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Twisters: Any Time, Anywhere?

Updated April 23, 2010

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, Ryan Towell

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When you think about tornadoes you probably envision things like funnel clouds, the Wizard of Oz, maybe even Kansas cornfields in May. Would you also envision mountains? Or how about the shoreline of the East Coast? What about a winter-time twister?

If you are like many people, you associate tornadoes with the Great Plains in spring. There may be good reasons for this, but it may not give an entirely accurate picture of reality.

More tornadoes occur on a yearly basis in the U.S. than any other country in the world. Tornadoes are sighted most frequently in the Plains in an area termed `Tornado Alley.` This tornado hot-spot runs roughly from Texas north into the Dakotas.

Moisture flowing northward from the Gulf of Mexico, cooler air moving southward from Canada and dry, desert-like air coming into the Plains from the Southwest are a volatile combination that seems to target the Plains each spring and early summer. Even so, tornadoes can occur anywhere in the U.S. and at any time of the year.

An F-4 tornado packing winds of between 207 and 260 miles per hour mowed down miles of a heavily forested area in the Teton Wilderness of Wyoming on July 21, 1987. This damaging storm occurred outside of what is generally considered Tornado Alley. What makes this particular event more unusual is the fact that this area resides at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. The twister even crossed the Continental Divide.

Large tornadoes have even hit parts of the Northeast over years, some with deadly consequences.

A series of tornadoes ripped through the Washington metro-area on Sept. 24, 2001. One weak twister touched down near the Pentagon before lifting as it passed over the city. An F-3 tornado with winds of between 158 and 206 miles per hour blasted through the University of Maryland in College Park a short time later. That tornado toppled trees, severely damaged buildings and flipped cars. Two sisters, both students at the university were killed during the storm.

Even sunny California is not immune to the occasional twister. The state averages about five tornadoes a year based on data obtained between 1950 and 1995. As recently as March 4, 2005, a tornado struck Fontana, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. The rather small, brief tornado caused about $20,000 in damage.

Tornadoes are not limited to any one season of the year either.

A deadly tornado formed during the middle of winter, on Jan. 12, 2005 in Union County, Ark. It destroyed several homes, injuring at least 13 and killing two.

Every state in the country has recorded a tornado at some point in the past and twisters have been sighted during every month of the year. For these reasons, staying alert to changing weather conditions is your best defense against dangerous weather. By keeping WeatherBug active in your system tray, you can stay on top of dynamic and potentially life-threatening weather conditions by receiving the very latest weather alerts for your community.

The story image shows a tornado captured on film by WeatherBug user Damon Beetham. This twister occured outside of `Tornado Alley` near Spokane, Wash. on May 21, 2004.

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