Tornado count in 2014 (year-to-date) in red versus recent average in black (NWS Storm Prediction Center)

Tornado season across the U.S. is off to an extraordinarily slow start with just 73 tornadoes so far this year compared to an average of 256 (year-to-date) in recent years. But the atmosphere across the Mid-South and Ozark region is primed to potentially narrow the gap this afternoon and evening.

The National Weather Service (NWS) says over 52 million Americans are under an elevated risk of severe thunderstorms this afternoon and evening – spanning a broad region from east Texas northeastward into central Ohio.

Areas under elevated risk of severe thunderstorm in yellow (slight) and red (moderate). (National Weather Service)

The zone of greatest risk of severe storms covers much of Arkansas, southern Missouri, and the western part of the Tennessee Valley, including Little Rock, Springfield (Mo.), and Memphis.  Damaging straight-line winds and large hail are major threats in this area (assigned a 45 percent chance within 25 miles of a point), which is already blanketed by tornado watches through 5 p.m. CDT.

“Tornadoes –some strong with EF2 or worse damage– are … possible with the greatest risk of occurrence across central and southern Missouri southward through most of Arkansas,”  says the NWS Storm Prediction Center in its public severe weather outlook.

The storms are forming ahead of a strong early spring cold front carving through the middle of the nation.

Satellite view of storm system cutting across central U.S. (NASA)

“When the front and dryline encounter sunshine-heated and richly moist air to their east, thunderstorms should erupt and become severe, with help from that increase in surrounding winds,” SPC says.

You can track the storms on the interactive map below.

LinksSevere thunderstorm warnings | Tornado warnings

This same weather system fueling the developing severe thunderstorm outbreak is forecast to bring heavy snow to Minnesota.  Minneapolis is under a winter storm warning and expects 8 inches of snow tonight into Friday, and perhaps more north of town.