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Experts say the term ‘tornado alley’ is misleading, advocate moving away from it

Tornado territory extends well beyond the Great Plains, as recent outbreaks have made clear

Kathy Poss walks through the remains of Ragan Chapel United Methodist Church the day after a string of tornadoes caused several fatalities in Ohatchee, Ala., on March 26. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)
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When one thinks of dangerous weather, “tornado alley” might come to mind — a strip of real estate running from Texas and Oklahoma through Kansas and Nebraska, home to violent twisters that have captivated minds and dominated folklore for decades.

But your greatest risk of being hit by a tornado is not actually in tornado alley. Nor are your highest chances of being killed by a twister.

Those infamous titles belong to the Deep South — particularly Mississippi and Alabama, where two tornado outbreaks have occurred in the past two weeks, including Thursday’s killer event.

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In fact, the traditionally drawn tornado alley only covers a fraction of the area swarmed by tornadoes each year. Tornado alley does not so much capture where the majority of tornadoes occur, but rather where most storm chasers hunt for them.

Some say it may be time to abandon the concept of tornado alley altogether, or reshape it to reflect our currently understood reality and risk.

“I think [the term] does a disservice to most people,” said Victor Gensini, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Northern Illinois University.

Research has shown tornadoes are just as common in the Deep South as they are on the Plains, and there is no real drop-off of tornadoes as one exits tornado alley to the east.

“If you look at the actual spatial risk of significant tornadoes, there’s no real discontinuity,” Gensini said. The Deep South has the “same climatological frequency … same in the Mid South as the Plains.”

“To be honest, I hate the term,” said Stephen Strader, an atmospheric scientist at Villanova University specializing in severe weather risk mitigation, in an interview with the Capital Weather Gang last year. “What people need to understand is that if you live east of the continental divide, tornadoes can affect you.”

Where did tornado alley come from?

The term tornado alley first cropped up nearly 70 years ago, when a couple of atmospheric scientists used it as a title for what may have been the first meteorological research project on tornadoes. The pair of Air Force officers, Ernest J. Fawbush and Robert C. Miller, were commissioned to attempt severe weather forecasts after a damaging tornado roared through Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City on March 20, 1948.

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The two set to work analyzing surface weather maps and upper air charts in the days that followed, and just five days later raised the alarm that similar atmospheric parameters could again brew severe weather nearby. Preparations at the Base were taken, and yet another destructive funnel descended the evening of March 25. The back-to-back twisters proved the merit of severe weather forecasting, and on Feb. 15, 1952, the two officers began issuing severe weather forecasts between Texas and Nebraska in a project they called “tornado alley.”

Since then it has become a term popularized by media, describing the swath of the nation’s midsection that hosts barrages of twisters like clockwork every spring. Movies like “The Wizard of Oz,” set in Kansas, are many people’s first introduction to tornadoes.

Why the media so often highlights tornadoes in the Plains

Tornadoes on the Plains are often elegant and foreboding, some reliably appearing as high-contrast funnels that pose over vacant farmland for hordes of storm chasers and photographers. The Plains are like a giant meteorological classroom, an open laboratory; its students flock to it every year.

That is why many of tornadoes we see on television or in print media have the “classic” funnel look; often the most picturesque and widely publicized, photos are snapped on the Great Plains each spring.

In the Deep South, including Alabama and Mississippi, most tornadoes are rain-wrapped and shrouded in low clouds, impossible to see. More than a third of all tornadoes in both states occur at night, making them twice as likely to be deadly. Simply stated, Deep South tornadoes are a different breed, and do not look like their Plains counterparts. They are seldom shown on television.

Social scientist fear the constant media bombardment of high-contrast tornado images from the Plains is reinforcing unrealistic expectations that a tornado will be seen before it strikes. In the Deep South, that is simply not the case in most situations.

“If you’re expecting that, you’re not going to know” when one is coming, said Susan Jasko, a senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Public Safety in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Jasko explained that, even with warnings, many residents rely on environmental cues or seek visual confirmation to reaffirm risk before sheltering. In the Deep South, those visual cues are hard to come by.

A longer season in the Deep South

The cultural emphasis on tornadoes in the Plains also ignores the fact the South is vulnerable to twisters for a greater portion of the year.

Although both states have seen twisters every month of the year, tornado season is longer in Alabama than in Oklahoma as it is much more prone to cool-season tornadoes.

Though the plurality of the South tornadoes form in the spring months, a marked second season exists in November and December. January and February see a lot of tornadoes, too, before the atmosphere kicks into high gear in March and April. May is still dangerous, with a relative slowdown from June through October.

Because the season lasts so long — and tornadoes are tallied more gradually over the year than on the Plains, which sees theirs in a few big outbreaks each year — it is easy for risk to be underestimated in the Deep South.

Deadlier tornadoes in the South

Not only do tornadoes occur in more months in the South, they are also much more likely to be deadly. That is partly a product of population density, which is notably greater than on the Plains. More poverty and flimsier homes are additional factors that exacerbate vulnerability and death tolls in the South.

Tornado Alley in the Plains is an outdated concept. The South is even more vulnerable, research shows.

Furthermore, since tornadoes in the Deep South move faster and cover more ground, especially in the cool season, population exposed to them increases, causing vulnerability to surge.

There is also evidence to suggest the core of greatest tornado activity may be shifting east with time, perhaps linked to climate change. Gensini and other researchers have published studies documenting this shift, which may continue in coming decades.

U.S. tornado hot spots are shifting from the Plains to the Midwest and Southeast, study finds

Moving away from tornado alley

So is it time to replace the term?

“This idea about calling something ‘Tornado Alley’ and [attaching an outdated definition to it] may no longer be useful as a tool for getting people’s attention focused in a good way,” Jasko said. “Now [it’s] kind of dysfunctional … the less useful [these] terms become, and the more they may be misleading people.”

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Tornado alley has never defined where most tornadoes occur; nowadays, it is simply where most tornadoes are photographed by storm chasers, who flock to the Plains in hordes each spring.

Even if misleading, outdated descriptions of tornado alley still appear in National Weather Service literature and textbooks, remaining rather ingrained in our culture.

“In the United States, there are two regions with a disproportionately high frequency of tornadoes,” reads a NOAA website. “Florida is one and ‘Tornado Alley’ in the south-central United States is the other.”

Who’s really at risk for tornadoes?

The real area at risk for tornadoes stretches from northern and Central Texas to the Dakotas and all the way eastward to the Midwest and Appalachians; it most certainly includes the Deep South, Mississippi Valley and Tennessee Valley, as well as Florida. The case could even be made to lump tornado-prone parts of the Mid-Atlantic in there.

“I think there are several reasons to move away” from the term, wrote P. Grady Dixon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, in an email. “But ultimately, I think the most important thing is to continue raising awareness.”

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Might we rename this much larger area “tornado country?”

“We could stand a little more research into these sorts of efforts, but we can look at advertising as a parallel when a company needs to rebrand itself,” Jasko said. “Some campaigns succeed beautifully and other ones fail.”

She felt that a new tagline might prove more communicative.

“I think the key is going to be to aim it at young people,” Jasko said.

Others were less interested in the language around it, and more interested in making the public aware of their risk through communicating the science.

“I see [relabeling or redrawing tornado alley as an] exercise in futility,” said Gensini. “I’m not sure statistically redefining tornado alley is going to happen. I think the best thing to do is to educate people.”

“Heck, we can go with Tornado Land, Tornadoville, or Tornadia as long as we continue making progress on the understanding that some places have predictable seasons, some have erratic seasons, some are more likely during cooler months and some in warmer months, and that the ‘boundaries’ of tornado-prone regions are not clearly defined nor are they static,” Dixon wrote.

In the meantime, tornado counts are inevitably about to start ramping up across the southern U.S., and the heart of tornado season is not all that far away.