By Jennifer Gray and Haley Brink | CNN Meteorologists
There have been 494 tornado reports so far in 2023 — almost double the average at this time of the year. Many of these storms have occurred outside of “Tornado Alley,” including states in the Plains, but instead carved miles of destruction across the Southeast and Midwest.
A deadly EF-4 tornado tore through the town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on March 24, killing at least 26 people and injuring dozens more. A week later, another series of deadly storms devastated neighborhoods in Little Rock and Wynne, Arkansas, killing at least 32 people and leaving many more homeless.
Then the third round of deadly storms in less than two weeks hit the same region on Tuesday, spawning nearly two dozen tornadoeskilling at least five people in Missouri.
The numbers are astonishing, but the severe weather season is far from over.
The severe weather season is getting more deadly
There have already been at least 68 deaths from severe storms in just over three months leading up to 2023. This number is staggering considering the average number of tornado deaths we see in an entire year is 71.
One of the reasons this year has been so deadly is that many of these storms broke overnight.
Research shows nighttime tornadoes are more than twice as deadly as daylight tornadoes. Tornadoes are hard to spot in the dark, but the biggest reason is that people are asleep.
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“A glitch in the distribution of alerts appears to coincide with nighttime hours, as most people sleep during this period and do not receive critical alert information,” the statement said. study suggests.
Another reason we’ve seen more deaths simply has to do with where these storms are happening. The Southeast and Midwest are much more densely populated than the plains. More people have been in the path of these storms.
There are also fewer basements and underground shelters in the Southeast due to the moist soil, forcing people to shelter above ground, making it more difficult to survive a violent tornado.
Why this year was particularly active
There have been nearly 500 tornadoes so far in 2023, making it the third highest tornado year after 2008 and 2017, year-to-date. And 13 of the 15 weeks this year have brought heavy weather.
Part of the reason this year has been so brutal is because of the steady flow of atmospheric rivers that have plagued the West.
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Those storms have held an incredible amount of moisture, with “lots of snow, lots of rain, and tornadoes in Los Angeles,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center. And they have maintained their intensity as they moved east.
“These very strong wind fields, very strong surface cyclones that develop, could contribute to increased severe weather potential as those systems move further east,” Bunting said.
Winter was also warm over much of the eastern US, resulting in fewer cold fronts. Colder air tends to keep severe weather at bay, as storms need warm air and moisture to thrive. With a warmer winter season, more ingredients were present to produce strong storms outside of the traditional heavy season.
The traditional peak for severe storms in the US is April, May and June.
While storm fatigue can occur, this is the time of year when most tornadoes occur, and the weather will most likely remain active for the next two months.
Climate change and tornadoes
Researchers have seen a shift in tornadoes in recent years. “Tornado Alley” is seeing a decrease in tornado activity, while the Southeast and Midwest are seeing an increase.
Tornado watches are on the rise across the South, with Mississippi counties seeing the highest increases in the past 20 years, according to the Storm Prediction Center.
Until now, there has been very little evidence about the impact of climate change on severe storms and tornadoes. But a recent one study showed that rotating supercell thunderstorms could be more frequent and intense in the future as global warming pollution pushes global temperatures further.
It also suggests a shift in where these destructive storms will occur, as well as an earlier start to tornado season.
“Supercells are expected to become more numerous in regions of the eastern United States, while decreasing in frequency in parts of the Great Plains,” the study says. “The risk from supercells is expected to escalate outside of the traditional severe storm season, with supercells and their hazards likely to increase in late winter and early spring.”
Since the outlook looks bleak in severe weather, it’s best to stay vigilant and be prepared. Having a plan now and knowing what to do could save your life when the storm hits.
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