Tornadoes and climate change in the Mid-South: A Severe Weather Center 13 Investigation

MID-SOUTH — They are nature’s most feared storms in the Mid-South — tornadoes. One can spin up in a moment and wipe out everything you hold dear.

As spring begins, our community is entering into severe weather season, and we want to make sure you stay safe. FOX13 Meteorologist Yasser Kishk devoted more than 100 hours collecting and analyzing data on tornadoes in the Mid-South for a first-of-its-kind Severe Weather Center 13 Investigation.

This spreadsheet represents 70 years of tornado data organized by month and year.

There are memorable events that become outliers in the data steered by the April 2011 and 1974 Super Outbreaks. So we organized these averages, climatologically by 30-year trends to give you as accurate a picture as possible.

In the end, these are just numbers. The reality of the damage and heartache just one tornado can cause is exactly what happened in Trumann, Arkansas, on December 10, 2021. We caught up to Trumann tornado survivor Delbert Reeves and asked him what he thought about tornadoes like this happening in the fall.

Reeves says, “Over the last several years, it seems like the zones are shifting a little bit...”

Do you think that is having an effect on tornadoes like this, different times of the year?

“I think it does have an effect,” he said.

Trumann became ground zero for an outbreak of December tornadoes, taking the lives of 88 people across the south and Mid-West and causing more than $3 billion in damage.

After that outbreak, the FOX13 Severe Weather Team wanted to find out whether our community is seeing more tornadoes and if a warming climate is changing when we get hit by tornadoes and if they are stronger or weaker than they used to be.

The data we collected comes through a partnership with Mississippi State University and the National Weather Service.

Here is what we found:

Yes, there are more reported tornadoes now than ever before.

ANNUAL TORNADO AVERAGE - SEVERE WEATHER CENTER 13 INVESTIGATION

From 1951-1980 there were an average 50.8 tornadoes per year in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Compared to the latest climate averages of 101.8 per year from 1991-2020, that is more than a 100% increase from what we saw 40 years ago.

However, that is not necessarily because the climate is warming. These numbers are changing because there is better detection, improved radar, the population has increased, meaning more reports, and more things to be damaged.

So FOX13 Severe Weather Team looked deeper at ‘strong’ and ‘violent’ tornadoes, F/EF2 to F/EF5 because tornadoes are rated by the damage they produce, and you didn’t need modern technology to tally damage on this level.

What FOX13 Severe Weather Team found...

ANNUAL STRONG TORNADO AVERAGE - SEVERE WEATHER CENTER 13 INVESTIGATION

is, since the 1980s, there are actually fewer strong tornadoes in our community. Especially in the heart of severe weather season. We break down that data by season. In spring and summer, strong tornadoes have fallen off by almost a third. The only time of year strong tornadoes are increasing is during the fall, and there’s not much change in the wintertime.

The question is why?

One of the main ingredients of a tornado is when there is a collision of cold, dry air and warm moist air. That is why we warn you before cold fronts come through.

As the climate changes, however, there are fewer of those strong cold fronts and therefore fewer strong tornadoes hitting the Mid-South.

We want to reiterate, as we are in severe weather season, just because there are fewer strong and violent tornadoes does not mean you should let your guard down because all it takes is just that one. Depending on where it hits, a single storm can cause a historic level of damage.

You want your family to stay safe. That is why we recommend having a plan with your family for home, school, work, and a way to get woken up if a storm hits your area while you are sleeping.

One way is to download the FOX13 Weather app. Let’s walk you through how to set it up.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE FOX13 WEATHER APP

Once you download the app, click on the FOX13 Weather app, it is going to open up.

You need to click on the three little lines on the top right of your screen.

That opens up the menu bar.

Then you click on the gear icon.

That opens to notification settings.

You want to toggle “on” notifications for severe weather center 13.

After that, go down to “notification sounds”... and toggle that setting “on.”

You will get a new drop-down menu.

When you click on severe weather, you can choose your sound.

We recommend you turn on “siren.”

You can also customize sounds for other weather events like lightning and rain.