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U.S. tornado outbreak: 100 storms touched down in a week

In the last week, weather authorities across the U.S. have reported over 100 tornadoes tearing through central and southern regions, leading to significant destruction of homes and infrastructure from Oklahoma to Nebraska and Iowa. A particularly severe tornado struck Oklahoma in the middle of night, resulting in the deaths of at least four individuals and injuries to over 300 due to severe thunderstorms and high winds.

As states like Colorado enter their severe weather season, Andrew Winters, an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder provided insights into the formation of tornadoes, the potential impacts of climate change on these severe weather events, and strategies for better preparation.

Zones of strong wind shear 

Tornadoes are rapidly spinning air columns connected to severe thunderstorms. They often develop in zones of strong “wind shear,” where wind direction and speed sharply change with altitude. These shears are drawn into thunderstorms, helping to spin up the air and form tornadoes that reach the ground.

Tornado risk in the United States 

The U.S. hosts an environment highly conducive to tornadoes, more so than most other places worldwide, though they also occur in South America and parts of Europe. 

The highest risk is in the central and southeastern states where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meets dry air from the Rockies, creating instability and promoting strong upward air motions.

Surprising surge in tornado activity 

Tornado season typically kicks off in March in the southeastern U.S. and moves westward to the central and southern plains by late spring. By June, severe weather including tornadoes, strong winds, and hail shifts to higher latitudes such as Colorado.

However, the recent surge in tornado activity is somewhat unexpected, especially coming out of a strong El Niño winter, which usually correlates with reduced severe weather in the Central Plains. 

More frequent tornadoes in the coming months

While it is too early to accurately predict future tornadoes, ongoing activity in the subtropical jet stream could signal more frequent tornadoes in the coming months.

The impact of climate change on tornadoes is still unclear due to the high resolution required by climate models to accurately simulate these events. However, shifts in atmospheric conditions could move tornado activity eastward from the traditional Tornado Alley to areas like the Mississippi River Valley.

Thus, enhancing awareness and improving severe weather communication is necessary to avoid the risks associated with tornadoes. 

Importance of multiple warning systems

Winters emphasized the importance of multiple warning systems, including emergency notifications on phones and following local weather services on social media. Preparation also involves planning safe spaces in homes or community shelters for rapid access during a tornado.

As communication methods evolve, it is crucial to ensure that weather warnings reach diverse audiences through accessible and multilingual formats. The community and meteorological experts are focusing on refining these strategies to better prepare populations for the threats posed by severe weather.

More about tornadoes 

Tornadoes are among the most violent and unpredictable natural phenomena on Earth. They are rapidly rotating columns of air that extend from a thunderstorm to the ground and are capable of immense destruction due to their high winds. 

The formation of tornadoes typically involves a severe thunderstorm, known as a supercell, which contains a rotating updraft called a mesocyclone. Under the right conditions, this mesocyclone can tighten and intensify, potentially lowering a funnel cloud that becomes a tornado once it touches the ground.

Tornadoes are rated based on their intensity and the damage they cause, using the Enhanced Fujita scale, which ranges from EF0 for the weakest to EF5 for the most powerful. These storms can uproot trees, destroy buildings, and hurl objects and debris at high speeds, making them highly dangerous. 

The central United States, particularly in an area known as Tornado Alley, is famously prone to tornadoes, but they can occur almost anywhere in the world under the right meteorological conditions. 


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