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. Charlie

    Ahh yes, Stupidity reins supreme again. Years ago (50 to100) there were just as many tornadoes and just as strong. What there wasn't was the population density that observed them.

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

      Not sure the actual weather measurements back this claim up. Besides, if nobody was paying attention to these earlier tornadoes, what evidence do you have that the frequency and intensity are the same now?

      March 6, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
    • iTS TRUE

      They have tornado facts through the 1920's. There does not seem to be any particular pattern, but There were more frequent and harsher tornadoes in the 1940's and 70's.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • sdintz

      you speak too much logic for the main stream, shame on u!

      March 6, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
    • tom

      I noticed your lack of facts, links, or anything else to prove your point. Since you were not alive over 100 years ago what do you base your claim on? Otherwise just rebury your head in the sand because the weather experts disagree with you.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • bozobucks

      A tornado touches down in the middle of a forest in the middle of the night...no one knows, no one cares. Two years prior, a developer ripped the forest down and built a subdivision...now the tornado strikes in the middle of the night, there is deaths and damage...all of a sudden...my god!!! it must be global climate change causing this horrific storms. You are absolutely correct Charlie. Tornadoes frequency isn't increasing, the capability of detecting and the population expansion is. More targets, better chance of hitting one. And Yes, I am a real meteorologist for many years. Records are made to be broken. There were bad storms in the past and there will continue to be in the future. Nothing new.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      just because it happened before doesn't mean it's not a bad thing. people are dying and losing their homes.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  2. Grahame Rhodes

    Just to be clear and in response to the deniers of global warming. Just remember this. How many cities are on the Missouri River. How many woman are on the pill which is then dumped into the river to go the the Gulf of Mexico. There's some very strange fish coming out of the gulf, a lot of them showing indications of both male and female. This stuff is in the food chain and you're worried about climate change? Better be worried about what you're eating.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Derek k

      You obviously have no idea how the human body works. First hormones are proteins, your kidneys can not filter out proteins to exceted as they are too large (unless you have a serious medical condition going on. Second hormones are broken down in your body and it's the metabolite (that has no physiological function) which is exceted. It's just like testing for steroids when you are doing a uralysis, you test for the metabolite not the hormone it's sell. Please if you are going to make scientific claims make sure you do some research. It would make sense if you said millions of women are flushing their BC down the toilet, but we know that's not the case.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Justin

      Derek that would be true if 100% of the hormone/drug/etc. is used by the human body, which it is not. We are finding, as am I (part of my graduate research) hormones, drugs, (both legal and illegal) in surface waters. The metabolite compounds as well as their parents can be detected using LC/MS analysis.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Derek k

      I have no doubt that you would find some of those things in water sources, I'm just making the point that the human body won't excete an entire hormone it's far too large to pass through the glomerular membrane. However I did also do some research on some chemicals that are dumped into waters that have hormonal properties and thus mimic the hormone when it is introduced into a living organism. Idk if you are familiar with atrazine but it was found to change the gender of some frogs, and that is a chemical used or was used by farmers widely in the Midwest. Also water bottles like those used from aquafina have also been known to contain a hormone mimicking molecule, there for I don't disagree with there being hormones or hormone like molecules in the water I'm just claiming the source wouldnt be from urinating out hormones such as estradiol presterone and other female hormones.

      March 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Scottish Mama

    The climate has changed. I do not care if you believe or do not believe in the change. It is fact. If you have a change, which we do it is a climate change. What could cause the change, warmth of the planet. What causes the warmth, the cutting of trees,(which purifies the CO2 out of the air), CO2 emissions from factories and cars,(which ups the amount of CO2 with the trees being cut down, ups the amount because we have no natural form of taking it out of the atmosphere). It is a conclusion that has been taught in elementary science books. It is the people of religion that do not believe in science. Science that has been prosecuted by religion, but science that has been found to be factual. Religion also said the world is flat and the sun rotates around the sun. Maybe religion should be put on trial and expected to prove the validity of the beliefs. Belief is not factual, it is just a belief. It is written words by authors after the fact and not the original witnesses. The bible is a translated and rewritten book by people who have left out information and stories, and pick and choose what a human desired in it. It is writen by humans not by the hand of god. If people need guidence to be respectful to one another, we really do need help.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Sure

      Sure the climate changes all the time. But it had nothing to do with these storms.. as there were more powerfuland more frequent storms in the 30's and 40's. So what your saying is that climate change is reducing the amount of tornadoes?? Ya for global warming.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
    • al

      Wong. False religion (i.e. Catholicism) said the world was flat. Read a Bible some time. The Bible says (almost 3,000 years ago) that the earth is round and hangs in space on nothing.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
    • t3chsupport

      Climate change is real, but it's hard to tell how much we're really doing for it. We're probably speeding it along, but we're not the whole cause of it. This planet has cooled and warmed many times before we were ever even close to being primates. This is just another part of the endless cycle.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      They have tracked and recorded storms only from 1950's. The storms in the 30's and 40's are only eyewitness accounts. It is relitive new science and only looked at for the last 140 years.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      @al the bible was written less than 2000 years ago. What?

      March 6, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  4. GBG

    I am not denying there is global warming and most likely it is man-made and we should treat nature better, but there is NO correlation YET that the increase of storms means anything. Historical statistics show similar number of tornadoes over time. This year we are getting them early because we had a very mild winter. We are probably due for a very severe Hurricane season as well because of the warmer gulf waters, but until we have 5-10 years in a row of mild winters we can not conclusively state this is what's to come because of global warming.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Barb

      Last winter wasn't mild and we started getting very strong and severe storms in April. That is still early for that severe of a storm, how do you explain that?

      March 6, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • MikefromWV

      You don't have to be a scientist, to see what is going on, NOW, not in the future. The last few years, storms have gotten worse each year, more frequent, more damaging. More rain in places that normally don't get that much rain. Winters milder and milder each year in places where they shouldn't be that mild. Droughts, year after year, in places that aren't known for extended droughts. But you nut jobs keep believing what they tell you on Faux News, or the spin that right wing politicians put out. Just don't whine when you become a victim of your own ignorance.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Hannah

    People sit back and argue whether this is caused by man. as the storms grow stronger, water on the coast line creeping up, loss of habitat for our wildlife and animals going extinct, I guess we will go back to the times of the amoeba when only single cell animals will survive and in a million years maybe mammals will evolve again. We know what to do but the oil lobbyists don't want it. They want to monopolize our energy and it is killing us.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  6. xesor

    God is upset and is punishing them, he is not getting his 10% cut.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • 14trilliondebt

      You are referring Obama, right?

      March 6, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  7. John

    Your first chart (comparing the past week's tornadoes with the previous year's) is too poor a resolution to read. I am unable to determine which is the past week's and which is the past year's. Please replace this graph with a higher, readable resolution or remove it.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. Tsimbi

    Only a fool would deny that "climate change" is a real event. After all, it has been happening since the inception of our planet from a ball of dust. A brief look at geological time will show that the climate is, and always has been, fluid.

    With that in mind, only a fool would accept as fact that our current state of climate change is caused by man.

    As one renowned scientist put it.... "Don't worry about the earth warming up. Once it starts cooling off, THEN we'll have problems".

    March 6, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      You made no actual argument against anthropogenic climate change. You simply called a number of people – including some of today's brightest scientific minds – a bunch of fools for believing in something you do not believe in. I fail to see the wisdom in this approach to the issue.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
    • strategic bob

      faith is the maintenance of belief in the absence of evidence. blind faith is the maintenance of belief in the face of overwhelming evidnece to the contrary. wide men can have faith, or they can decide not to have faith. but only fools have blind faith. the world is what it is and reality is not obliged to bend to your personal preference and foolishness.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mabel

    We do have an effect on the earth, but climate change is inevitable. There have been a number of climactic shifts in the earth's history and there will be long after we are gone.

    Rather than wasting time debating the issue, you need to prepare for whatever natural threats are in your area. In the Midwest, where I live, those are tornadoes, winter storms and recently, earthquakes. Learn how to stay safe and like the article says, make a plan with your family. You should know what to do not only at home, but at work or wherever you happen to be. My house has so far escaped all the tornadoes, but in 2008 my work got hit. No one was hurt. It pays to be prepared.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Darren

      I've concluded that there are 3 types of people in this world.

      1. People that believe in science
      2. People that are too dumb to understand it
      3. People that are too ignorant to even try to understand it.

      By the way, we are all able to live comfortably in today's society because of the #1s. Be careful who you criticize. It would appear they know what they are talking about. These same people have put a men on the moon. What have you done?

      March 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bravin

    Check out "historic palmer drought indices" from noaa.gov (it's safe) and check out some of your weather patterns over the past century. It's really cool to see how Earth's weather patterns are cyclical.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  11. tom

    This is exactly what the global climate change models forecast. Stronger storms occurring more frequently. But please those of you on the right keep thinking Al Gore made up global warming to get rich. LOL at your simple minds.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Tsimbi

      tom-

      You are aware, I presume, that your hero Al purchased a $9mil mansion on the California coast last year, are you not? You know....in the area that's supposed to be under sea water in 20 years????

      March 6, 2012 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
    • vickie dawkins

      Al Gore packaged the term "man-made global warming" not "global warming." There is little doubt that the world is forever changing; however, the idea that man (and bovine creatures) have made such a huge affect on the weather patterns that have existed for eons is ridiculous and simplistic.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan, TX

      There is little doubt that man made climate change is real. But there is no way you can attribute any particular storm or even to climate change. The loss of life and property is truly terrible. But these potential climate change impacts are not nearly as terrible as the economic cost of forcing dramatically reducing carbon emissions without appropriate economic benefits being derived from the control. And even if climate change did make the earth uninhabitable can cause the end of human life on earth thousands of years from now, why should we care, we'll all be long dead anyway.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  12. Andrea M

    Establish a safety plan and don't live in a flimsy house is more like it. Would you build a house of un-reinforced brickwork in San Francisco knowing an earthquake WILL hit sometime? Would you build your house on the side of an active volcano knowing it WILL be paved over by lava at some point? Why would you live in a flimsy house without adequate tornado protection in an area prone to tornadoes? The technology exists to build storm safe houses and the materials to do it exist too, but mid-westerners insist on living in trailers and basic houses. That little girl and her family probably wouldn't be dead if they had lived in a real house with a basement instead of what is effectively a glorified cardboard box. It amazes me that it's legal to live in a trailer in those areas. It's hard to feel much pity when the locals are too thick to live in proper houses even though loads of them die because if it every year. Praying to god while huddled in a hallway will do nothing to save you in a storm, a good bit of concrete will.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      You mean the trailors sent to Louisiana after a hurricane?

      March 6, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • KH

      Andrea-that's all fine and dandy,but what if all the can afford is the house they were living in? Not everybody in this country can afford to live in a re-inforced house. People have to live somewhere, and they tend to live in what they can afford. And even a "tornado proof" house (which doesn't really exist) can be demolished by a strong enough storm. I do not find it all hard to feel pity and sadness for those who lost loved ones or their homes in these storms...it can happen to anyone, even you.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • galicant

      Careful, don't let any compassion sneak into your post. I guess the poor should just kill themselves so they don't anger you. FYI most houses in the areas hit can not have a basement because of the stone shelf and soil composition. In an ideal world we would all live in pressed concrete bunkers, but thanks to the government of the past decade doing everything it can to destroy our nation that is harder for those simple folks out there than it was pre-9/11 to have anything good. Your post was a waste of words.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      People live in what they can afford. You remind me of when Cokie Roberts commented on the flood of '93 that the toothless man who had lived in Missouri by the Mississippi on a wooden stilted house should not live there. But when the million dollar homes in California fell in a mud slide it was a shame to her.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. HeHasRizen

    It's called Haarp and project blue beam. look it up with chemtrails and you will see the silent "Weather War" but most americans are to Re..tarded to notice thinking the gov't has their back. my cuz works for harrp joplin tornado was them and katrina. open your minds and dont be decieved by the gov't. God is the only answer.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  14. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    Instead of arguing over what is causing stronger tornados, we should be thinking about how to build stronger buildings.

    March 6, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      What would that be? Geodisic? Where are our construction scientist?

      March 6, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  15. Tao Shi

    Reblogged this on Learning From Data and commented:
    Numbers are for fun sometimes, but they mean serious business as well.

    How does this happen to the two studies?

    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.
    Reading the comments, I totally agree with a by John:

    Your first chart (comparing the past week's tornadoes with the previous year's) is too poor a resolution to read. I am unable to determine which is the past week's and which is the past year's. Please replace this graph with a higher, readable resolution or remove it.

    March 6, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      NOAA has posts of years (you can manually put in) of tornato activity and I think you can put in the years of your choice to calculate activity. It only has them since 1950 though.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Tao Shi

      Thank you Scottish Mama, would you mind point me the right link to find these data? google is not helping me so far.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
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