What is Tornado Alley?

Article written: 18 Sep , 2016
Updated: 27 Sep , 2016
by

Tornadoes are a fascinating force of nature, as awe-inspiring as they are destructive. They form periodically due to the convergence of weather patterns, and often leave plenty of devastation in their wake. And for those who live in the active tornado regions of the world, they are an unfortunate fact of life.

Such is the nature of life for those who live in the infamous “Tornado Alley”, a region that extends from the southern US into parts of Canada. This area is so-named because of the frequency with which tornadoes take place. Compared to other active regions of the world, this area experiences the highest frequency of violent tornadoes.

Origin of the Name:

The term “Tornado Alley” was first used in 1952 as the title of a research project about severe weather in the US. This project was conducted by U.S. Air Force meteorologists Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller, and covered a region extending from areas of Texas to locations throughout the mid-western US.

Tornado at Union City, Oklahoma Credit, NOAA Photo Library

Tornado at Union City, Oklahoma. Credit: NOAA Photo Library

The term has since caught on thanks to media sources as well meteorologist and climatologists, though many use the term “Great Plains Tornado Belt” as well.

Geographical Area:

The geographical boundaries of “Tornado Alley” have never been very clearly defined and no official definition has been adopted by the National Weather Service (NWS). As a result, different definitions and boundaries have been adopted based on different sets of criteria. For instance, the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) states:

“‘Tornado Alley’ is just a nickname made up by the media for an area of relatively high tornado occurrence; it is not a clearly defined area. Is tornado alley the area with the most violent tornadoes, or is it the area with the most tornado-related deaths, or the highest frequency or tornadoes? It depends on what kind of information you want!”

While no region of the US is entirely free of tornadoes, they occur more frequently in the mid-western US – spanning areas of Texas to parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

Tornado Alley

Artist’s impression of the geographical region known as “Tornado Alley”. Credit: Dan Craggs/Wikipedia Commons

Texas reports the most tornadoes of any state, whereas Kansas and Oklahoma rank first and second respectively in the number of tornadoes per area. Florida also reports a high number and density of tornado occurrences, though tornadoes there rarely reach the strength of those that sometimes occur in the southern plains.

However, the Canadian prairies, eastern Colorado and western Pennsylvania are often included in the boundaries. And last, several smaller areas have been designated as being their own “Tornado Alley” – which include the Texas/Oklahoma/Kansas core, the Upper Midwest, the lower Ohio Valley, the Tennessee Valley and the lower Mississippi valley.

There is also the term “Dixie Alley”, a name coined by Allen Peasons, a former director of the National Severe Storms Forecasting Center (NSSFC), in 1971. This name refers to the lower Mississippi Valley and upper Tennessee Valley were tornadoes occur frequently.

Nevertheless, most definitions focus on the geographical region known as the Great Plains where no major mountain ranges are located. This is important because mountains act as breaks on weather systems, forcing them to dump the majority of their moisture before crossing over them (the reason why the southwestern US has a more arid climate).

 Image from Federal Emergency Management Agency, a United States government agency, booklet FEMA 320 Third Edition, Section 1, Figure 1.1, page 3, titled Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside your House. Credit: FEMA

Image from Federal Emergency Management Agency booklet, “Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside your House” (3rd ed.). Credit: FEMA

In the case of the Great Plains, the region’s lack of these natural barriers leaves it open to cold fronts from Canada and warm fronts from Mexico and the Gulf Coast. When cold and warm front collide, they create supercells and thunderstorm systems that lead to tornadoes.

Impact:

Due to the frequency of tornadoes in certain areas of the United States, building codes and warning systems have been implemented. These include the institution of special building codes, construction of storm cellars, sirens, preparedness drills, education programs, and regular weather coverage by local media outlets.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, during the period of 1991 to 2010, those states that have the most experienced an average of 5.7 (Minnesota) to 12.2 (Florida) tornadoes. Using a long-term average (based on data collected between 1950 and 2012), the entire “Alley” experiences about 268 tornadoes per year.

In the southeastern United States, where housing is less robust and many people live in mobile homes, causalities are particularly high. According to the NOAA, almost 3600 tornadoes have occurred in the United States, which resulted in more than 20,000 deaths, between 1680 and 2000.

The track of the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013 is visible from space in this false color image taken on June 2, 2013 by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite.

The track of the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013 is visible from space in this false color image taken on June 2, 2013 by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite.

Meanwhile, data from the Tornado History Project shows there were 5,587 confirmed fatalities blamed on tornadoes across the United States between 1950 and 2012. Of those, 1,110 occurred in Tornado Alley. The injuries caused by tornadoes are much higher, with a reported 64,054 injuries being attributed to tornadoes during the same period – over 15,000 of which occurred in Tornado Alley.

The worst year on record was 2011, when tornado activity spiked leading to 1,704 confirmed tornadoes and 553 confirmed deaths. This includes the 158 deaths that resulted from the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, on May 22nd, which was also the deadliest since modern record-keeping began in 1950.

In financial terms, the cost of tornadoes is also quite high. In fact, the Insurance Information Institute reports that between 1993 and 2012, the average insured loss per year was $7.78 billion for severe thunderstorm events, including tornadoes. In 2011, during the spike in storms, an estimated $27 billion was filed for in insurance claims.

No matter how you slice it, living in regions where tornadoes are known to frequent is both a dangerous and expensive prospect. As our understanding of tornadoes grows, we are able to predict where they will form and what paths they will take with greater accuracy. As such, we can reduce the cost in human and monetary terms over time.

Deadly Tornado Rips Across Indiana and Kentucky

Satellite image showing the after-effects of the deadly tornado that ripped through Indiana and Kentucky. Credit: NASA Landsat Project Science Office and USGS EROS

But in the long run, the greatest safeguards against injuries and death are public awareness and education. Tornadoes are also an important aspect of Climate Change, since changes in our environment are likely to effect and exacerbate extreme weather patterns.

We have written many articles about tornadoes for Universe Today. Here’s How Do Tornadoes Form?, What was the Largest Tornado Ever Recorded?, New Gigantic Tornado Spotted on Mars, and Huge “Tornado” on the Sun.

If you’d like more info on tornado, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

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2 Responses

  1. Steven says

    pretty clear it’s moved because of climate change…

    http://phys.org/news/2016-08-center-tornado-shifting-east-south.html

    • Smokey says

      Interesting, Steven, thanks for that. From the study referenced:

      “Differences in counts from Period I [1954-1983] to Period II [1984-2013] show respective changes of -217 [in “Tornado Alley”] and +154 [in “Dixie Alley”] for these grid boxes. Similar compilations for significant tornadoes again show the maximum count (271) in Oklahoma for Period I, but the new maximum in Period II (185) is located in northern Alabama. Equally important is the overall decline in significant tornadoes, with the largest decrease (-159) located in southeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas. Similar results have also been shown for the (E)F3–(E)F5 tornado counts.”

      “The maximum number of tornado days in Period I (246) is located in southeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas, but in Period II the new maximum (208) is located in southwestern Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. The greatest decrease (137) is located in southwestern Oklahoma and north-central Texas, with the greatest increase (29) in central Tennessee. Similar results are noted for the significant and violent tornado days with a general overall decline in numbers.”

      “This trend in temperature may have climate change implications for tornado behavior, but this possibility has not been investigated in this particular study.” (Emphasis mine.) Good thing, too, since otherwise one might start to think the study data shows we’re better off overall being warmer, at least as far as tornadoes go. Weird.

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