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Late-Winter, Early-Spring Tornadoes Can Be Deadly

March 2014

UPDATED By WeatherBug Sr. Meteorologist, James West

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While winter weather slowly retreats across the U.S. in early March, it is understandable to overlook the threat that late winter-time and early-spring tornadoes pose. Across the Southeast, it is vitally important to be aware that February to April is the peak season for tornadoes.

The jet stream is quite strong during the transition from winter to spring, and is usually draped across the southern part of the U.S. Cold and dry air masses that originate from Canada collide with warm, moist air provided by the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, highly dynamic weather systems form over the Southeast U.S.

From late January through mid-February, tornadoes are most likely to strike in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Some of these tornadoes form over the waters of the Gulf (called waterspouts) and move ashore. By the middle part of March, the tornado threat spreads north and eastward into the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, as well as the Southern Plains. Towards the end of April, the highest threat for tornadoes shifts west into Oklahoma, Arkansas and north Texas.

Although tornadoes that occur in January and February tend to be weaker than those that occur during April, they can be just as deadly. One factor is that early-season tornadoes occur at any hour of the day, including at night. This can make them hard to see. Often, the rotation of a tornado will go undetected by Doppler radar because it is too weak or embedded in a broad area of heavy thunderstorms. The storms of early spring also move more quickly thanks to the influence of the strong jet stream. This means that tornadoes could occur with little or no warning.

The biggest outbreak of tornadoes in U.S. history occurred April 25-28, 2011. A total of 359 tornadoes were confirmed in 21 states from Texas to New York. On April 27 alone, a record 208 tornadoes occurred. A total of 346 people were killed in this outbreak.

Less than one year later, a tornado outbreak struck the South and Ohio River Valley on March 2-3, 2012, with 70 confirmed tornadoes touching down in 10 states. There were more than 40 fatalities from this outbreak alone, more than half of which were in Kentucky. It is the second deadliest March outbreak ever recorded since 1950.

Another large and infamous outbreak occurred on Sunday, March 27, 1994, when a total of 26 tornadoes struck Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, killing 42 people. Twenty of those fatalities were in Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Ala., when an EF-4 tornado struck during a service. This tornado outbreak is the most recent of several historical tornado events that have occurred on Palm Sunday.

Since 2011, 431 Americans have died during the months of February, March and April as a result of a tornado. Since 1997, nearly half of all tornado deaths were in a mobile home at the time. Whether you live in a mobile home or not, you should stay informed if severe weather threatens, and have a plan of escape ready beforehand so that you can protect you and your family.

Be sure to keep WeatherBug active to receive the latest weather in your neighborhood and get the latest updates anywhere on Twitter.

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Story image: Sherry Cousins and her brother Bruce Wallace of Hollister, Mo., sit in the wreckage of their secondhand store in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein.

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