Tornado Alley is Shifting East. Here’s Why That Matters

Recent studies suggest that tornadoes are becoming more common outside Tornado Alley

Written by Ed Oswald

Published:

Massive wedge shaped tornado scours farmland in Illinois

“Tornado Alley” has long been associated with tornadoes, with May and June the busiest months. However, Tornado Alley is shifting towards the southeast U. S. and toward population centers. It’s also starting earlier than ever.

So what is Tornado Alley? The term traditionally refers to an area roughly from South Dakota southward to north central Texas. However, tornadoes are becoming more frequent to the east and north. Scientists documented this eastward shift. A 2018 study found that tornado frequency generally decreased over The past four decades across Tornado Alley, while increasing to the east across the Lower Great Lakes, and into the Deep South.

Northern Illinois University researchers found that supercells, the origin of most tornadoes, will become less frequent across Tornado Alley and more frequent across the eastern U. S. as the planet warms.

Others have noted the frequency of tornado outbreaks has shifted dramatically eastward since 1950, and they increasingly occur in clusters, or multiple tornadoes in the same area. Research also suggests tornadoes are now more common in the late winter and early spring, and less common in the late summer and early fall.

The biggest consequence is a significant increase in damage risk. While people live in Tornado Alley, it’s far less densely populated than areas to the east. People used to worry about a tornado in downtown Dallas: these studies suggest downtown Memphis and Nashville are more likely to see one instead. Millions more Americans now live in an area where tornadoes are common.

Is climate change to blame? Yes, but it’s complicated. Nationwide Doppler radar is a powerful tool for detecting tornadoes, even when there’s no one there to see them. This could be responsible for part of the increase. The Southeast U. S. is also far more populated as we mentioned, so tornadoes are easier to detect. Severe weather awareness is higher, and in our social media age, videos provide much faster confirmation of tornadic activity.

But the increase is too significant to pin on these reasons alone. We can likely pin some of the blame on climate change. But is natural or man-made variability the cause?

One school of thought suggests the uptick is part of an overall increase in severe weather across the U. S. due to climate change. Models have been forecasting this for years. However, others argue the variability may stem from bigger cycles, such as differences in Pacific sea surface temperatures. This could also be shifting Tornado Alley, but we don’t have enough data to make a clear judgment.

No matter the reason, the data suggests that Tornado Alley is no longer just limited to the Great Plains. It’s more important than ever to stay “weather aware.” When a tornado warning is issued, take it seriously. Head to an interior portion of the building or your home. If you hear the tornado approaching, get low and protect your head.

A weather radio is also invaluable during severe weather. Our favorite is the Midland WR 120 NOAA Emergency Weather Alert Radio. It can receive weather alerts directly from the National Weather Service using SAME technology, which allows the weather radio to display the type of warning even after the broadcast message ends.

That’s the easiest way to keep yourself safe and is far more dependable than the often incorrect weather app. Tornadoes happen quickly, but we hope we’ve given you a better understanding of why tornadoes seem to be more frequent and more destructive.

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Ed Oswald

Ed Oswald has nearly two decades of experience in technology and science journalism, and specializes in weather stations and smart home technology. He's written for Digital Trends, PC World, and TechHive. His work has also appeared in the New York Times. When he isn't writing about gadgets, he enjoys chasing severe weather and winter storms.

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3 thoughts on “Tornado Alley is Shifting East. Here’s Why That Matters”

  1. Thank you. I see the weather disturbance around me in Happy Valley, State College, PA. The insects and flora changing rapidly, the trees dying, and the severe weather that comes on suddenly. “A Word to the wise should be sufficient.” my mother said a lot. Keeping up on Alerts and information will save your lives.
    We have stocked a safe room in the basement here and in Gordonsvile, VA homes. After the Kinzua Viadut was leveled by massive tornado we knew PA could get hit.

    Reply
    • this severe weather has been off the charts because more tornadoes are being involved and hail and wind reports im saying that by 2030 or 2035 we could be a new tornado alley suchs as maryland and delaware so if you are under a watch or a warning take a watch as a warning because a warning can be issue at anytime of day and night and month and year stay safe a have fun chasing

      Reply
    • Not to panic! Weather does not kill trees except by blowing them down. Trees do have a natural life cycle, which varies a lot depending on the species. Drought (including lack of fluid water in winter) will drive them into dormancy. This accounts for fall foliage color as the tree stops photosynthesizing with the change in light and underlying colors emerge. The trees that appear to be dying earlier are probably diseased or damaged in some way such as by insects, changes in the soil, lack of soil, or applications of highway salt in the NE for example. Pine trees do shed needles naturally. Weather by itself doesn’t kill trees. The notion of acid rain has been debunked.

      Reply

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