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.

Post by:
Filed under: Tornadoes • Weather
soundoff (184 Responses)
  1. BIG "G"

    doom gloom naysayers

    March 5, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |

      The Mayans were right! We are doomed! DOOMED I tell you! DOOOOOMED!
      Bring out the tin foil hats, cellophane and candles!
      Harold Camping was right!
      Pass around the Kool-Aid and Jell-O!
      Why oh why did we not listen?!

      March 6, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
  2. BIG "G"

    are you a fan of the doomsday chronicles.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. BobbyBoo

    Because judges a nation upon the works of that nation. Obama is leading this nation down the road of hell.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      I guess Katrina was summoned by antichrists' Bush and Cheney?

      March 6, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Nancy

      Oh, right. And all those horrific storms, hitting in regions where you KNOW they don't agree with Obama, and they are part of the bible belt, are god's way of... what? Hitting his "true believers" to prove that Obama is the 'anti-christ?' LMAO!!! That's a stretch, there, boy... but you go with that. Whatever helps you sleep at night, skippy. 😉

      March 6, 2012 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Edwin

      Anyone who attributes weather destruction to someone's political agenda is just plain nuts.

      March 6, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
    • john

      Purely stupid I say, PURELY STUPID. Such religulous comments!

      March 6, 2012 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
    • E

      No, no, no, no, no. You're doing it wrong.

      Prophets warn BEFORE something happens.

      Usually paranoids and crazies make up stuff AFTER it happens.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  4. Nancy

    I wish that the family that died had paid more attention to the weather forecasts, and perhaps arranged to spend their day closer to a sturdy shelter. I wish that all the people who didn't pay attention to the weather might have been a little more wary when seeing the storm clouds rolling in... let's face it, these things didn't come out of a clear, blue sky. People need to have a plan, as this article made clear, and put it into action when forecasts are as ominous as this was.

    That said, I offer condolences to all those who lost loved ones, were injured, and lost all their possessions. Having survived a tornado myself through sheer good fortune, I will never, ever ignore weather warnings again!

    March 6, 2012 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Yesterday I read that they elected to remain together in their home rather than evacuate to a shelter where they might have to separate. It's a tragedy they were all killed in this freak storm.

      My condolences to their relatives and friends. It's not something that should happen to anyone's folks.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  5. BIG "G"

    negative antichrist naysayers

    March 6, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. BIG "G"

    I agree that preparedness is the key. Living in a flimsy trailer is possible but you better have some sturdy shelter nearby. My condolences to the people who lost loved ones.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  7. LogicalThinker

    The combining of hot air relative to cooler air and moist air mean that the moisture carries more heat energy per unit volume than dry air. The moisture also provides a means by which hot air rising can transfer its heat energy to the air around it and, after losing sufficient energy, fall back down with its weight of moist air to provide the influx of air to feed the storm. A tornado is very much like a hurricane, on a small and more locally violent scale.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Yes, a land hurricane. We know, they're all powered by heat.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  8. I Post Here Sometimes

    Hey CNN reporters and editors, you should read this article:

    "Early tornadoes not predictors for future twisters
    By Mariano Castillo, CNN
    updated 2:31 PM EST, Sat March 3, 2012"

    It's fairly well researched and informative, and isn't alarmist and one-sided like this article is. I was pretty impressed by how objective it was because that's kind of unusual coming from CNN. It didn't get many page views or comments though, I wonder why it's been replaced now.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
    • LOL

      Pure media sensationalism in action.

      Shame on you CNN.

      March 6, 2012 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
    • StraightUp

      Not sure how this article is sensationalist or one sided. So, telling people to prepare for tornadoes in case they one day are affected by one is alarming? How is saying, "it is not clear whether a particular year will have more tornadoes" one-sided? If you don't agree that families should be prepared, then don't take cover the next time you see a storm coming or have a tornado warning for your town. You know it's never going to happen to you, right? I don't see how stating facts about past outbreaks is sensationalist. It's called education. This article clearly says that busy tornado seasons can't really be predicted. Did you actually read and interpret this article? The only differences between the article you posted and the one above is that your article talks more about the atmospheric conditions and quotes experts. This article did that, as well, and addressed how current atmospheric conditions might have lead to this recent outbreak. There isn't much difference and for the record, the other article has about the same amount of comments as this one.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:32 am | Report abuse |
    • sliv3r16

      You pretty much hit the nail on the head, StraightUp. Let's look at what 'I Post Here Sometimes' said though. All this article really got was some revamping insteading of keeping with the story posted the day after the latest outbreak. You change the headline to answer what everyone's asking, break everything down like a Q&A, keep the same facts, add some tips on how you can protect yourself from becoming a victim and try not to make it seem so dry. Eventhough the other article was shorter, it felt like it took a lot longer to read through.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Do you believe that killer tornadoes frequently happen in *winter*? Not so much. Denial, LOL. It's not just a river in Egypt.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  9. BIG "G"


    March 6, 2012 at 1:06 am | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Actually in the south November and December is the second major tornado season.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |


    March 6, 2012 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Nancy

      Conspiracy theory, anyone? Yeah, I'm thinking... NO.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:56 am | Report abuse |
  11. ♔Mmmmm♕

    i-i-i believe it! natural diasters indigenous to their respective regions will intensify due to obstinate sin and's known as woe-warnings...of course yah gonna have them learnit knuckleheads "explain it away" and declare such things, as woe-warnings, do not exist....who can believe a knucklehead?

    March 6, 2012 at 6:14 am | Report abuse |

    Mother nature farts and stirs up a few tornados and everyone wants to proclaim its the end of the world!

    March 6, 2012 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  13. timmy

    Never listen to "weathermen". They cant seem to predict the weather 12 hours from now, what makes you think they can predict the frequency and intensity of storms that haven't even been conjured yet? "Weathermen" claimed Chicago would have one of the coldest winters on record with copious amounts of snow, yet it has been one of the mildest winters on record and snowfall has been at a minimum.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  14. Bob

    Who wrote this, a 3rd-grader? Where did you learn punctuation? You may want to ease back on your use of commas.

    Awful writing.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. Elizabeth

    im sorry but god has nothing to do with the weather. I just dont understand how so many people can be blind. Facts and evidence make me a believer not someones words or hearsay. things are changing in our world. look at all the diasters that have happebed over the last ten years. and its just going to get worse if we cant clean up our act. we have other resources that we could harness that would not harm the planet. wind lighting solar wake up dont be sheep lead we need leaders

    March 6, 2012 at 8:29 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7