Tornadoes do happen in December. Think back to the Mobile “Christmas tornado” in 2012. There were several tornadoes also that day in nearby counties. There was also a tornado a week before Christmas in Mobile that same year.
That gives a little perspective to the deadly tornadoes recently in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky. Those tornadoes were historic for impact in December. While spring is when tornadoes are most frequent, they can happen in any month as long as the ingredients come together.
As I write this, the death toll is at least 80, primarily from tornadoes that were EF3, and one that was EF4. EF is Enhanced Fujita — a tornado ranking scale from 0 to 5, devised by scientist/engineer Ted Fujita. EF3 is considered strong and EF4 is violent. Those are the type of twisters that are responsible for the greatest number of tornado fatalities in the United States.
Annually, between 1,000 and 1,400 tornadoes are confirmed in the U.S., yet only a couple dozen take lives. In a typical year, 20 to 30 people may perish from tornadoes. That means that every year, over a thousand tornadoes form that don’t kill people.
This year will end up as the deadliest for tornadoes since 2011, when over 550 people died in dozens of powerful twisters. Around 350 people were killed in Alabama and neighboring states in April 2011, followed by a single EF5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, that killed over 150 people. Extremes like these are historic, scary and memorable.
We are fortunate in Mobile and Baldwin counties that most of our tornadoes are considered weak, being EF0 and EF1. We do also get EF2, but rarely EF3. Most of our tornadoes are relatively brief with short paths. As you move more than 60 miles inland, then you begin to see EF3, and then EF4 on rare occasions, that have stayed on the ground for dozens of miles. This is not to say they can’t happen nearer to the coast. It’s just that we haven’t seen that. As you travel northward through inland counties in our region, you do find increasing numbers of the stronger and longer-lasting tornadoes that do take lives.
What you need to know, for Mobile and Baldwin counties combined, is there have been about 90 tornadoes confirmed in the last quarter-century. Most of them were EF0. Only two were EF3 tornadoes. Only one person was killed, but there were many injuries and there certainly was damage.
One day, we will experience something worse than what the past has shown us. Don’t be paralyzed by fear of tornadoes in our area, but do respect them. That means be aware in every month when there’s a threat, and always have a safety plan and sheltering location for yourself and your family.
Alan Sealls is chief meteorologist at NBC15 and an adjunct meteorology professor at the University of South Alabama.
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