What Is Tornado Alley and Where Is It Located?

What Is Tornado Alley and Where Is It Located?

According to National Geographic, tornadoes in the US cause anywhere between 70-80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries per year. And there is no doubt that the country has seen some of the most powerful and destructive tornadoes in recorded history. What’s scary is that the average warning time for a tornado is only about 13 minutes, so once it’s confirmed, people don’t always have enough time to prepare and protect themselves. 

When you think of natural disasters in the US, you might think of Earthquakes in the west, or Gulf Coast Hurricanes. But there’s also a region in the US where tornadoes are frequent–and often destructive. It’s called Tornado Alley, and while it might sound like it’s out of a Hollywood movie about storm chasers, it’s actually a real place. 

Where is Tornado Alley, and why does it get so many tornadoes? Let’s take a look!

What Is Tornado Alley?

There is no strict definition of what Tornado Alley actually is, and the region has never been designated by the National Weather Service. “Tornado Alley” is more of a colloquial term for a region of the US that is affected annually by some of the most powerful and frequent tornadoes in North America. 

While scientists have long researched what has been called the Great Plains tornado belt, the term “Tornado Alley” is largely media driven. But storm chasers and climatologists certainly recognize the prevalence of tornadoes in this area. A study of 1921–1995 tornadoes concluded almost one-fourth of all significant tornadoes in the US occur in the region we typically think of as Tornado Alley.

Where Is Tornado Alley?

Since Tornado Alley is not a geographically defined region, knowing where it is really depends on the source. Generally speaking, it is an area that spans across the south-central US.

When the term was first applied in a 1952 study on severe weather, states included in the research were Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, and Minnesota.

Today, many consider the heart of Tornado Alley to consist of northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, and South Dakota.

But as tornadoes are becoming more common in the northern US and up into the prairies of Canada, sometimes states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are also included.

Why Does the Area Attract So Many Tornadoes?

You’re probably wondering why Tornado Alley attracts so many powerful tornadoes. In simple terms, the region often attracts a mix of warm moist air and cool dry air that intersect and create a moist air clash. These conditions make it perfect for natural weather conditions like thunderstorms to develop, following which tornadoes are likely to form. 

The states encompassing Tornado Alley attract warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, and cooler, dry air up from Canada. These conditions, when combined with the flat land and atmospheric patterns of the region, cause supercell thunderstorms to develop. 

Related post: How Do Tornadoes Form?

When Is Tornado Season?

According to NOAA, tornado season begins in the late spring. But when tornado season reaches its peak depends on the region.

The Gulf Coasts reaches peak tornado season before any other area, with their highest frequency of tornadoes typically lasting through springtime. In the southern plains of the US, peak season begins in May and continues into early June. And in the northern plains and upper Midwest, tornadoes reach their peak in June or July.

With all this said, however, tornadoes can happen at any time of the year. And no state is entirely free of tornadoes.

Is Tornado Alley Moving?

Recently, there has been some speculation that Tornado Alley is actually moving to the south east, as more tornadoes are being recorded in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. 

In March of 2019, the deadliest tornado of the past six years touched down not in Tornado Alley, but instead in Alabama and Georgia. Since 2000, the general area has witnessed an increase of tornadoes.

Naturally, many point to man-made climate change as the culprit. And while many scientists see this move east as being related to global warming, there are still some uncertainties on whether it is causing more tornadoes to form. 

Part of the problem with tornado research is that they are incredibly difficult to study (anyone remember the movie Twister?). So there is still a lot climatologists need to learn about the destructive forces of nature.

How to Stay Safe During a Tornado

Whether you live in Tornado Alley or just like to be prepared, it’s always a good idea to stay informed and know what to do in the case of a tornado. 

According to the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, signs that a tornado may be approaching are heavy rain followed by a heavy or calm shift in the wind, a continuous roar or rumbling sound, and a strong rotation in the clouds. 

If you suspect a tornado may be coming, or your state has issued a warning, take shelter in the lower room or basement in your home, stay away from windows, protect your head, and always have an emergency supply kit ready to go.

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