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. Aeromechanic

    So, anybody still not believe in climate change?

    March 6, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew Friet

      Climate change is quite real. It has been happening for the last 4 billion years since the Earth came into being. The weather is NOT static and unchanging. It always is in a state of flux.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Aeromechanic

    Hold on lady......we going for a ride.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emrullah

      Most tornadoes have wind sepdes less than 110 miles per hour (177 km/h)The most extreme can attain wind sepdes of more than 300 mph (480 km/h), stretch more than two miles (3 km) across, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles (more than 100 km).[laky busion was the worst tornado ever

      April 23, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ulu

    hey, is Wild West auditioning for Rush"s old job?

    March 6, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Scottish Mama

    Sounds alot like male menopause or middle aged crisis. Having yours today?

    March 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. WildWest

    @ Scottish Terrier. Just stating Cold Hard Facts

    March 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Scottish Mama

    It is not tornato season yet. It does not start till May in the south.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. California Liberal

    Stop being so anti-Human and maybe... just maybe, god will stop sending his wrath to the midwest and south. I doubt it though. Your heads are so far up your backsides you can't see but the darkness ahead.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • High Hopes (if not for you)

      It's not the wrath of God,
      He is not the one
      who causes human suffering.

      Signs of the times.
      Just a little while longer and
      the wicked one will be more.

      Be There!

      March 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Douglas

    why why why? Why can't we have bad weather. The poor people suffered. Tornadeos happen. Why do we have to analyze everything? After Katrina, Do you remember? Nothing but horrible Hurricanes to come. Yeah.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scottish Mama

      We will have bad weather, but we can build better with thoughtfulness and human life in mind.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Scottish Mama

    @Wild Hair- Just stating observation.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Global Weather Chaos

    How many unprecedented weather events, "once in a decade", "once in a lifetime" weather events... have to happen over a short period of time for people to realize we have pushed the Earth beyond the tipping point?

    March 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. AE Pucc

    "carlyjanew6" Will the real god please stand up lady, I am confused as to which "religion" is the way the truth & the light. Maybe jesus or Rambo will come on down with some carbon eating serpents & save the day. In the meantime check out the amount of carbon we are emitting just by the internal combustion motors. It is logical & scientific to say, "If you keep filling the toilet with crap, it will eventually CLOG-UP" My suggestions read something else besides the bible & turn off fox (news)

    March 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |

      Luke 12:9 But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.

      March 10, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  12. Matt

    Yawn. Weather happens. That's why I live in San Diego. No weather.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. High Hopes (if not for you)

    It's not the wrath of God...

    He's not the one who causes human suffering.

    Signs of the times.

    Knowing he has a short period of time...

    Then, the end will come.

    Be There,

    March 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dan

    A sign of things to come? Are you new to the Midwest?

    March 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |

    Matthew 16:2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. 16:3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

    March 10, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
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