March 5th, 2012
02:08 PM ET

March tornado outbreak a sign of things to come?

The early-striking, intense storm system that hit the country last week has many people wondering if this year's spring could be a repeat of the violent season we saw last year.

U.S. tornado outbreaks happen nearly every year, but outbreaks of this magnitude and the outbreak at the end of April 2011 are rare.

“A March tornado outbreak of similar scope to (the recent one) occurs roughly once a decade," according to Russell Schneider, the director of NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

This chart compares the number of tornado warnings during the April 2011 tornado outbreak and last week's storms.

Prior to April 2011, the U.S. last saw an outbreak of that magnitude in April 1974, when 148 tornadoes swept across 13 states, killing 330 people, and injuring 5,484. The outbreak on April 27 and 28, 2011, is the second deadliest outbreak in U.S.history, since records have been kept. It resulted in 320 deaths as 305 tornadoes swept across four states.

Currently, the death toll from Friday’s outbreak stands at 39, with the latest death being 15-month-old Angel Babcock who passed away Sunday afternoon from injuries sustained during the Henryville, Indiana, EF4 tornado. 

As surveys of the hard-hit areas are completed, the confirmed count could continue to rise. So far, this recent outbreak saw 128 reports of tornadoes across 12 states, with 45 of those tornadoes being confirmed.

This graphic shows the number of tornado reports associated with last week's outbreak.

These current statistics make March 2, 2012, one of the deadliest March days since 1994. If the death toll rises, this could be the worst March outbreak, which will not be confirmed until the National Weather Service completes its local damage assessments.

Given the severity of this recent outbreak, does this actually mean that we can expect another harrowing spring for tornadoes?

The U.S. winter of 2011-2012 was largely dominated by a La Niña event, which refers to abnormally cool temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, and that current La Nina is now weakening.

According to the Earth System Research Laboratory, research covering 1950-1992 found that La Niña years could lead to increased tornado activity for the Ohio River Valley and the Deep South. However, ESR says another study conducted over a longer period (1950-2003) found that neither the frequency of tornado days nor those of violent tornado days is affected by El Niño.

So it is not clear whether a particular year will have more tornadoes, but this year's winter has been warmer, allowing the Gulf of Mexico to stay relatively warm.

The Gulf is where these storm systems get their main moisture supply, and warmer waters allow for greater amounts of that moisture to be evaporated into the atmosphere. When you couple that abundance of moisture with very warm temperatures ahead of a strong upper-level storm system, you get the perfect ingredients for an outbreak, according to the National Weather Service.

Devastating outbreaks in spring 2011 had already put people on high alert for the upcoming season.

There have been huge advances in tornado detection in recent years, and that allows National Weather Service forecasters to give the public greater lead times when issuing warnings. On days like last Friday, when tornadoes are everywhere, people are more alert to the weather situation and more likely to take shelter in case of danger.

But if this early start to the tornado season tells us anything, it is that warnings by themselves are not enough: Establishing a safety plan with your family can save precious time, and hopefully, precious lives.

People all across the country, and certainly those in tornado-prone areas, should review their family safety plans to ensure the most timely response during a tornado warning.

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Filed under: Tornadoes • Weather
soundoff (184 Responses)
  1. banasy©

    Well, that's what I've been saying all along...!

    March 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ljdr1948

    No global warming here folks, we don't have to listen to those silly scientists. Everyone back to sleep now,

    March 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Former Marine

      You know what's funny about that, is the people that know absolutely nothing about Global Warming but believe in it anyway are the ones pointing to the tornadoes last year and so far this year as "proof" of Global Warming.

      But NOAA, you know, the science guys, are the ones saying that it probably isn't a side effect of Global Warming. If we're going to listen to the experts, we need to listen to them all the time and not confuse the issue by saying things that contradict them. That's why there is so much debate over a fairly clear issue anyway. Too many people on both sides saying things that just aren't true.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      It's Climate Change, guys. Try to keep up.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. oneSTARman

    We can't predict individual Outbreaks over the course of a season. We can't predict Individual Tornadoes more than a Few Minutes in advance. What we CAN say with CERTAINTY is that the PATTERN of More Frequent and More Intense CLIMATE DISASTERS: Floods, Droughts, Wildfires, Hurricanes, tornadoes, Blizzards (YES more violent WINTER Weather TOO) will CONTINUE to Get WORSE until we can REVERSE the DAMAGE Done to Our Environment by the fossil fuel Industries.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharky

      Fine, the have a all humans eradicated from the planet.

      March 5, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      We're doing a bang-up job of that ourselves, Sharky. Unfortunately we're taking everything else with us.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  4. SF

    I think it has to do with the weather.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Elain

    It must be a sign that something ad is happening to those bad people. Why dont any other countries get the weather that the USA does?? Theres your SIGN!!

    March 5, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • chrsnck

      Other countries outside of the U.S. get worse – famine, war, disease, and of course Earthquakes and Tsunami's which while the U.S has gotten some very unusual earthquakes lately its been nothing compared to around the rest of the world as of late.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. N Tyler

    Things fixing to get bad all over because the Lord is coming soon we need to pray and call on Jesus and praise him..

    March 5, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy

      You're kidding, right? In case you hadn't noticed, all the other doomsday dates have come and gone without the "Lord" making his well-forecast appearance. MAN is causing catastrophic weather changes... not "god," the "Lord," or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pray all you want to, but don't count on being "raptured" anytime soon! 😉

      March 6, 2012 at 12:11 am | Report abuse |
  7. rtbrno65

    Things don't happen until they do. It is impossible to predict how many more tornadoes are coming this year.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dave

    Hopefully a EF5 will hit the HQ of CNN in Atlanta, and do us all a favor.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark J

      HaHa!! Happened a couple of years ago...didn't help.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joe Lent

    No one has to be very smart to know that man-made air pollution adds heat and humidity to the air, helps create clouds, and increases rain, flooding, snow, ice storms, hail, and tornadoes. Worldwide combustion engines should give us a big increase in all of these.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Derek k

      But one does have to be smart to know gases are produced that have an opposite effect to green house gases, and that we are technically still coming out of an ice age so the warming is part natural and not entirely caused by humans.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jaden

    WOW!! Those people didn't see it coming??

    March 5, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BobbyBoo

    anyone else notice that since obammie got his antichrist views in office this country has had the worse weather in history.. these storm seem to be along the bible belt. hummm could there be a connection?

    March 5, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Where were YOU when Katrina hit New Orleans? Are you MENTAL?

      March 6, 2012 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  12. BIG "G"

    I just don't understand for the life of me why ANYBODY would live in a trailer in tornado alley! They should have had a cellar to go to maybe underneath the trailer. It was sad that whole young family had to die like that!

    March 5, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lolly

      Sometimes people can't afford that luxury.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  13. BIG "G"

    WHAT A LOON. How can you compare Obama to the antichrist? Nature is nature. There are more people living now and there has to be more safer places for these people to go. There are too many needless deaths.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. BIG "G"

    Just too sad for a little toddler to die like that.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. BIG "G"

    I agree with the Marine. I think people have to know what they are talking about and do some studying. I, however, feel that the earth is constantly changing and there are many other factors that weigh in on the global warming thing. What makes man different from other large invertebrates is our ability to adjust to our surroundings. However, we as the human race must realize that the earth's resources are definitely finite and we had better be able to evolve and adjust to our surroundings. I truly feel that we as human beings will be able to do this.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Problem is that we've pumped too much CO2 into the atmosphere for plants and animals to adjust. The earth will abide. It will be steaming hot and less O2 will be available. It may take millions of years for life to evolve again and the dominant form won't be human...and it won't be as beautiful as it is now.

      Unless we act soon, we've screwed ourselves. It's probably too late already. This makes me sad because I have a child. One child. I care about the planet. All those idiots who think God wouldn't do it to us? Well, we've done it to ourselves, Mr Boehner, you idjit. God won't save us, why should He? We trashed His lovely world.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Forgot to mention: this little girl is the tip of the deathberg. So many more will die as a result of what we're doing now, you'll never believe it. I may live to see it, I may not, I don't know. I survived ovarian cancer but who knows how much longer I'll be around?

      I hope it's long enough to see this situation turned around. I have nephews and a grand-niece. I'd love to know they'll be all right, too...

      March 6, 2012 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
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