U.S. Tornado Days Per Year
The United States has a greater frequency of tornadoes than most other counties. For many factors, the vast majority of tornadoes occur east of the Rocky Mountains across the continental U.S. Although the central and southern Plains region is widely considered to be “Tornado Alley,” there are other areas that see just as many tornadoes, if not even more.
The two graphics below are adaptations of NOAA/NWS SPC graphics found in their Tornado Environmental Browser. A broad area from the east slopes of the Rockies east to the west slopes of the Appalachians typically see the most days with tornadoes per year. Two local maximums can be identified in northeastern Colorado and central Florida. While these areas may see numerous tornadoes in any given year, they are generally low on the EF-scale. The central Appalachians feature a local minimum of tornadoes, but as one travels east, the frequency of tornadoes increases.
While terrain by itself will generally not have much of an effect on a tornado, especially a significant (EF/F-2 or stronger) one, there are reasons why terrain affects tornado frequency. In the Plains, lee cyclogenesis combined with a surge of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and drier air from the Rockies tends to create a favorable setup for severe thunderstorms and tornado development. Across the East Coast, there is less real estate to work with when considering the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Also, wind out of the south to southeast in the lower levels will often mitigate the risk of severe thunderstorms, especially in the spring and early summer months from the mid-Atlantic region into the Northeast. The placement of a “Bermuda” high and/or a “southeast ridge” of high pressure will tend to limit the formation of strong non-tropical low pressure systems along the East Coast during the warmer months, as the jet stream is often displaced further northwest.
The frequency of days with significant tornadoes is in some ways similar to, but also has differences in comparison with the frequency of days with all tornadoes. While portions of Colorado and Florida may see the most tornadoes overall, there are two distinct areas that feature a much greater frequency of significant tornadoes. The southern Plains into Dixie Alley (lower to mid-Mississippi Valley) will on average experience the most significant tornado outbreaks. Here, there are three factors that are probably most responsible for this. First, their proximity to warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico fill favor higher dew-points and greater instability. Second, the tornado season is a big elongated here. While April into May have featured the most significant tornadoes in Dixie Alley, the late fall into winter months have also included several major tornado outbreaks. Finally, there may be at least some influence from tropical systems. While tropical storms and hurricanes often do produce tornadoes, it should be noted that most of these tornadoes are generally not significant.
Eastern Nebraska into the Midwest also averages an elevated number of days per year with significant tornadoes. Here, while the tornado season typically peaks in June, at least some fall tornado events have spawned significant tornadoes this far north. In 2013, October 3rd-4th recorded six significant tornadoes from eastern Nebraska into Iowa, with the major tornado outbreak of November 17th featuring 32 significant tornadoes in the Midwest.
Other noteworthy observations:
Missouri is an interesting case. The western portion of the state is often considered to be in tornado alley and some maps will place southeastern Missouri in Dixie Alley. The state has seen plenty of significant and even violent tornadoes, with the Joplin tornado of 2011 being one of the more recent examples. However, a small section of central Missouri features a local minimum in terms of both tornadoes and significant tornadoes. One possible explanation can be their location being in a “dryslot” of sorts for tornadoes. For storm systems developing just east of the Rockies, the eastward extent of associated severe weather will often fall short of central Missouri. Likewise, systems developing in the lower Mississippi Valley often form a bit too far east to target central Missouri with the most tornadoes.
West Virginia has less tornadoes than most states east of the Rockies. One factor that immediately comes to mind would be the population density and terrain, which may limit some tornado reports. However, their location along the Appalachians certainly plays a role in the lower frequency of tornadoes. The higher elevations will typically have less instability. Likewise, moisture pooling will typically favor higher dew-points west and east of the Appalachians, leaving West Virginia in another tornado dryslot. According to the NWS, West Virginia has no recorded EF/F-4 or 5 tornadoes. With that said, a long-track F-5 tornado in southeastern Ohio narrowly missed passing into West Virginia before lifting. Also, an F-4 tornado that dropped southeast of Pennslvania into Maryland also lifted shortly before it would have passed into West Virginia.
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