A Comprehensive Analysis of the Spatial and Seasonal Shifts in Tornado Activity in the United States

Timothy A. Coleman aThe University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama

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Richard L. Thompson bNOAA/Storm Prediction Center, Norman, Oklahoma

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Gregory S. Forbes cThe Weather Channel, Atlanta, Georgia

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Abstract

Recent articles have shown that the long-portrayed “tornado alley” in the central plains is not an accurate portrayal of current tornado frequency over the United States. The greatest tornado threat now covers parts of the eastern United States. This paper shows that there has been a true spatial shift in tornado frequency, dispelling any misconceptions caused by the better visibility of tornadoes in the Great Plains versus the eastern United States. Using F/EF1+ tornadoes (the dataset least affected by increasing awareness of tornado locations or by changing rating methods), a 1° × 1° grid, and data for the two 35-yr periods 1951–85 and 1986–2020, we show that since 1951, by critical measures (tornadogenesis events, tornado days, and tornado pathlength), tornado activity has shifted away from the Great Plains and toward the Midwest and Southeast United States. In addition, tornadoes have trended away from the warm season, especially the summer, and toward the cold season since 1951. Annual trends in tornadoes by season (winter, spring, summer, and autumn) confirm this. All of the increase in F/EF1+ tornadoes in the eastern United States is due to an increase in cold season tornadoes. Tornadoes in the western United States decreased 25% (from 8451 during 1951–85 to 6307 during 1986–2020), while tornadoes in the eastern United States. increased 12% (from 9469 during 1951–85 to 10 595 during 1986–2020). The cities with the largest increases and decreases in tornado activity since 1951 are determined.

Significance Statement

This paper quantifies in many ways (tornadoes, tornado days, and pathlength) the geographical shift in tornadoes from the central to the eastern United States and from the warm season to the cold season, since 1951. Where and when tornadoes most frequently occur is significant not only for the research and operational meteorology communities but also for public perception and risk awareness. Some research studies have shown that tornado casualties are more likely in the eastern United States and the cold season because of preconceived notions of a “tornado alley” in the Great Plains and a “tornado season” in the spring. Publication of the results of this research might help ameliorate this problem.

© 2024 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Forbes: Retired.

Corresponding author: Timothy A. Coleman, coleman@nsstc.uah.edu

Abstract

Recent articles have shown that the long-portrayed “tornado alley” in the central plains is not an accurate portrayal of current tornado frequency over the United States. The greatest tornado threat now covers parts of the eastern United States. This paper shows that there has been a true spatial shift in tornado frequency, dispelling any misconceptions caused by the better visibility of tornadoes in the Great Plains versus the eastern United States. Using F/EF1+ tornadoes (the dataset least affected by increasing awareness of tornado locations or by changing rating methods), a 1° × 1° grid, and data for the two 35-yr periods 1951–85 and 1986–2020, we show that since 1951, by critical measures (tornadogenesis events, tornado days, and tornado pathlength), tornado activity has shifted away from the Great Plains and toward the Midwest and Southeast United States. In addition, tornadoes have trended away from the warm season, especially the summer, and toward the cold season since 1951. Annual trends in tornadoes by season (winter, spring, summer, and autumn) confirm this. All of the increase in F/EF1+ tornadoes in the eastern United States is due to an increase in cold season tornadoes. Tornadoes in the western United States decreased 25% (from 8451 during 1951–85 to 6307 during 1986–2020), while tornadoes in the eastern United States. increased 12% (from 9469 during 1951–85 to 10 595 during 1986–2020). The cities with the largest increases and decreases in tornado activity since 1951 are determined.

Significance Statement

This paper quantifies in many ways (tornadoes, tornado days, and pathlength) the geographical shift in tornadoes from the central to the eastern United States and from the warm season to the cold season, since 1951. Where and when tornadoes most frequently occur is significant not only for the research and operational meteorology communities but also for public perception and risk awareness. Some research studies have shown that tornado casualties are more likely in the eastern United States and the cold season because of preconceived notions of a “tornado alley” in the Great Plains and a “tornado season” in the spring. Publication of the results of this research might help ameliorate this problem.

© 2024 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Forbes: Retired.

Corresponding author: Timothy A. Coleman, coleman@nsstc.uah.edu
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