In a year that has already seen more than 300 tornadoes and 31 deaths, a dangerous pattern is likely to continue with still more severe weather outbreaks forecast for Friday, next week, and again the following weekend.
In fact, with 311 tornadoes so far, according to Storm Prediction Center data, it’s the third-most-active start to a year on record in the U.S. Last week’s devastating outbreak in the South, which killed more than 20 people in Mississippi and Alabama, followed several previous outbreaks.
“We should be at about 200 tornadoes for today’s date,” Victor Gensini, associate professor at Northern Illinois University, told USA TODAY on Thursday. “So we’re running about 100 tornadoes above average, and we have been the entire year.”
Tornado activity is expanding:Southern states see more twisters than ever
What’s the forecast for Friday?
The Storm Prediction Center on Thursday increased its risk assessment for Friday’s severe weather.
A low-pressure system west of Des Moines, Iowa, will be in between a cold front to the west and a warm front to the east, Gensini said, while a plume of “incredibly warm and humid air” flows up from the Gulf of Mexico, creating unstable conditions that favor severe weather.
- The most severe risk is expected along the eastern Iowa – western Illinois border and in the region where Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois meet. As of late Thursday, NOAA put the elevated risk level for Friday at “moderate.”
- Damaging winds and hail are expected, as well as the possibility of severe, long-track tornadoes.
- A “powerhouse jet stream” moving in from the Plains will move any storms that develop “at highway speeds,” Gensini said, which tends to increase the risk for twisters that stay on the ground for a long time.
- Meanwhile, on the back, colder side of the system, damaging winds and blizzard conditions are forecast in the eastern Dakotas.
Before-and-after the tornadoes:Maps and satellite images show aftermath in Mississippi, Alabama
What’s the forecast for the next 10 days?
A similar pattern is expected to set up Tuesday, amplified by even greater heat and humidity, increasing the risk for severe weather, Gensini said. “It might be our first high risk (event) of the year.”
If you wanted to draw a textbook severe weather configuration, “this would certainly be it,” he said. Between dry conditions to the west, and hot, wet conditions to the east, he expects to see a “pretty broad area of real estate” at risk on Tuesday afternoon and evening.
Yet another severe weather outbreak is possible the weekend of April 8-9.
“You can certainly take it to the bank here that over the next 10 days we will be way above average,” he said. “We’re going to have more casualties. … It’s just a matter of exactly where at this point.”
It’s crucial for residents to pay close attention to local meteorologists and to have a way to receive timely weather warnings, especially since many tornadoes occur at night.
What is a tornado emergency?
A step above a tornado warning, issued by the National Weather Service in “exceedingly rare” situations, when:
- A severe threat to human life or catastrophic damage is imminent or ongoing.
- Visual or radar evidence such as a reliable source confirms a tornado or a radar picks up the signature of a ball of debris inside the tornado.
Why has 2023 been such an active year?
The large-scale weather pattern has been very favorable for tornadoes, said Matt Elliott, meteorologist-in-charge at the Storm Prediction Center. He added the fading La Niña has been a major factor.
Gensini agreed, noting even though we’re no longer officially in a La Niña, “the atmosphere is kind of still feeling the effects of the La Niña with this very active storm track. We’ve had this very active storm track where every few days we see one of these big upper-level lows.”
La Niña, a natural climate pattern marked by cooler-than-average sea water in the central Pacific Ocean, affects weather in the U.S. and around the world.
Elliott said that the top five most active tornado seasons on record in the U.S. have all been during La Niñas.
Another factor has been the unusually warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which have been 2-4 degrees Celsius warmer than average, Gensini said.
Calling it “bath water,” he said the Gulf provides the moisture, heat and energy that’s needed for severe thunderstorms to form.
Will 2023 be an above normal year for tornadoes?
It’s too soon to say for sure, said Harold Brooks with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. But with the severe weather shaping up over the next 10 days, chances may be increasing.
“A busy first three months of the year doesn’t always mean the rest of the year will have above normal tornado activity,” Brooks said.
In 2021, the year started as one of the busiest on record, above normal through March 2. Then, other than one two-day outbreak in April, “things shut down.” In 2003, the reverse was true, he said. “We were way below normal on the 2nd of May and by the 10th of May, we were way above normal.”
However, Brooks said, if you’re well above normal by the end of April, the year will generally be above normal as a whole.