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. LarryT

    Not a joking or political matter to the people who were in the storms' paths.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  2. Kit In Holland

    I believe the Farmer's Almanac predicted a colder and snowier winter, not the 'weathermen'.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Here in north Florida we haven't had any winter weather at all. Last few days of February it got up to 84F. In February, traditionally the coldest part of our year. Wonder when it's going to start affecting the citrus? Without cold weather it won't be ripe and sweet.

      Climate change will affect all of us.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ms. Jordan

    People lost their lives & innocent children were taken away from this life too soon & all the extremist anti-Obama idiots can think about is finding some way to blame him. How about issue your condolences for the families & find another venue by which to vent about what the president is or isnt doin by your standards. My prayers & condolences go out to the families who lost loved ones and or everything they own.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan G.

      Great piece by an extreme Obama idiot.

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

      @Dan G – Maybe if you prayed harder none of this would have happened.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
    • RC

      I completely agree with you Ms. Jordan.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Anonymous

      Amen. It's almost as if society has forgotten to be kind towards their fellow man.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Stan Smith

      Funny. Same thing happened during Katrina. It was stupid then and it's stupid now.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • SonOfVirginia

      Who blamed Obama?, I see no mention of him

      March 6, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • SaN

      Prayers and love to all the families who have suffered so much through these terrible storms.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jim

    Well Kit, I guess you know what you can do with the Almanac since we've had one of the mildest Winters in awhile

    March 6, 2012 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
  5. mom of five

    I was born+raised in Joplin so I have seen many tornados in my life,but NOTHING even close to the devastation of May 22! The answer is have a plan+practice it! Have a weather radio! Pray! Because Jesus is coming soon! Earthquakes,wars,Israel became a nation in 47+ that generation will not die out! Watch for the destruction of Damascus! Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!

    March 6, 2012 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      Maranatha! <3

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

    The oceans are becoming more acidic with dissolved CO2 we pump into the atmosphere every day. If the balance tips too far, all the sea creatures dependent on shells for life will die. No clams, no oysters, no scallops, the reefs and all the fish that depend on them will die.

    We're all dependent on the food web.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
    • paul

      Was wondering how far I would have to read down to see a Global Warming nut.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Since when is CO2 an acid?

      March 6, 2012 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
    • scott

      Paul – It's more accurately called Climate Change, and it's real. Now, whether man has any real affect on the natural climatic cycle of the planet is still up for debate. I'm not convinced we have more affect than any other overpopulated species has had in the past, but Climate Change is real. Might has well just come to terms with it. It's not like it's something humans can stop, or even kick start for that matter.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • scott

      JC – CO2 isn't an acid, but when absorbed by water a chemical reaction occurs and H2CO3 is created, which is an acid called Carbonic Acid. A few minutes doing some research on the internet, or an hour or two in a library, to educate yourself is all that's needed.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      @JC – CO2 + H2O = H2CO3 (carbonic acid). High school chemistry does wonders.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • smbitterman

      @JC – Actually CO2 does exhibit acidic properties. I am not sure how much so in the oceans, but definiitely within physiology. As a matter of fact, CO2 is the body's primary acid, derived from the breakdown of carbonic acid into CO2 and water. The actions of CO2 within the body also reflect acidic properties, shifting the pH downward and causing impairment of metabolic functions. Again, I can't speak for oceanic effects, but I know that other species have physiologies that are at least partially similar to that of humans.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Actually we were talking about sea water so it's not H2O + CO2 = H2CO3. It's sea water + CO2 = (CO2aq) + H2CO3 + HCO3- + CO3(2-). The ratio is dependent on alkalinity and sea temps.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • scott

      JC – So if you knew how CO2 reacts with seawater, why did you ask a silly question?

      March 6, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. Brad

    Well, as the world get warmer, which it has been doing since the last ice age, we will see stronger weather. Warmer weather means more energy, that energy has to be used up somewhere, and with the population growing so fast, you will see more and more fatalities, even if the storms weren't getting stronger.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  8. GoldenGod

    Definitely freaky weather we have had this year. Very warm winter in Charleston, SC – I'm liking these low power bills. Sad story about the little girl who's entire family perished in the tornado. If I lived in a trailor in tornado country – I would definitely dig a whole under it or something. Those things are death traps in a tornado. I feel for the poor grandfather who had to make the heartbreaking choice to take his sole surviving grand daughter off of life support. Poor guy.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |

    i like it tracks the storm and if 15 miles away u got about 2 mins two get safe. and storm will happen everyday . they have build strong building or more in the ground . at least with basement. or steel vault in home its coming soon by insurance companies.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  10. hahahahahahaa

    Let us all Pray.........cuz most of you are going to HELL

    March 6, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Ryox82

      Judge not....correct?

      Silly Christians trying to play god make me laugh.

      Do you people even read the book?

      March 6, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  11. Scottish Mama

    Every new home should have a tornato vault built into the interior of every home and every trailor pad should have a panel in the floor to a basement vault underground. This would save more lives and give these people a chance. These people rebuilding should give up a closet to have these put in.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  12. duh

    I really feel for the people hit by these twisters. Can we please re-evaluate how we build structures in these regions? Boxy stick/brick buildings just don't stand a chance. I can't help but remember one of these storm chaser shows where the camera was under a disk which was forced down to the ground as the wind deflected over/around it till it passed. Undammaged and the gravel under it undisturbed. What if homes, building, shelters where modeled after that? Concrete dome buildings? they may look odd for a while but if the hold up and save lives... wouldn't that be nice?

    March 6, 2012 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      Geodisic domes? I wonder if the size matters, meaning the disc was smaller than the dome would be, physics?

      March 6, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Ryox82

      Dome shaped building have proved to handle wind much better than traditional style buildings. Also helps with that pesky roof collapse problem after a blizzard/ice storm.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  13. Scottish Mama

    It is winter in Missouri, it will be in the 70's today. Another front with rain will be coming in on wednesday and thurs. The southeast may be hit after we get the storms, be on your guard and have a safe place to go. If you are in a trailor find a place to go during the storms.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  14. Survivalist

    Be prepared for disasters ilke this in advance. I saw first hand the horrible results this has caused. Learn to do things like getting a bug out bag ready for tornados, hurricaines, earthquakes etc. Invest in a good weather radio with alerts and make sure you have plenty of food and water available. Some good advice is on which is a friendly place to learn how to prepare for disasters like this. Be safe, be prepared will lighten the load for you if this time comes.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  15. aaron

    what i find so ironic is that all the people that live in these states think god exists and thank him when they survive. now, if they believe in god and that god is all powerful then why aren't they understanding that if that is true, then this is actually god's work. god is sending these tornadoes to wipe them off the planet, by their logic. small minded fools...they need to go. if there is a god, at least we have that in common.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
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