If you pay any attention at all to the weather, and national headlines, you know 2011 was one of the worst years in recent memory for severe weather. The combination of multiple, high numbered, tornado outbreaks, hitting several major, metropolitan areas, leading to more than 500 fatalities made it the worst year for tornadoes in more than 80 years.
Well, it's 2012, and what's the chance that this severe weather season could be nearly as bad as last year..? No one knows for sure, but it's had an ominous start. We are still technically in the winter season, and yet the first two months of the year have seen more tornadoes than average, with two significant outbreaks prior to this major outbreak on March 2.
An outbreak across the mid-south and Tennessee Valley from January 22-23 would have been respectable in the middle of severe weather season, but it occurred in one of the typically least active months of the year, leading to two fatalities, both in Alabama.
February was mostly quiet until the month was about to expire.. and if it wasn't for it being a "leap" year, half of these would've held over into March. Regardless, it was another impressive, late winter outbreak from the 28th-29th. The map below shows all the tornado reports from the month, most of which occurred on these two days, including a powerful EF-4 in Harrisburg, Illinois. As of this writing, a total of 13 fatalities have been blamed on this outbreak, in the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Tennessee. The two day total of 36 confirmed twisters makes it the 2nd largest February outbreak since record keeping began in 1950.
On to March.. wait a second, we're only a few days in.. and another outbreak! This one being eerily compared to what's known as the Super Outbreak of 1974 which impacted the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys.. except that was in April. This early March outbreak will no doubt go into the record books. As of this writing, the total of reported tornadoes is just under 100.. which is more than we typically see in the entire month! The death toll is rapidly climbing, with at least three dozen fatalities already reported in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Alabama, with the hardest hit communities of Henryville, IN and West Liberty, KY. The NWS will conduct official surveys on the twisters, but photos and video of the damage in some of these storms is clearly in the EF3-EF5 range, making for yet another deadly outbreak here in 2012.
Though tornadoes can, and do happen every month of the year, the traditional severe weather and tornado season runs from March through June, peaking in May. Last year's super outbreak in late April, added to what was already a very active month, and ultimately ended up with more than 700 twisters being reported.. an incredible tally!
So with us just entering the beginning of the 2012 severe weather season, it's no wonder people are becoming increasingly concerned as to what the upcoming spring season will bring, severe weather-wise. This early March outbreak is incredible on many levels, one of which is how surprisingly far north the outbreak reached. Typically this early in the year, tornadoes are most common across the Southern Plains and deep south.. not all the way into the Ohio Valley! One likely factor is the lack of winter we've had this past year across most of the country. With no cold air outbreaks penetrating deep into the south this winter, the Gulf of Mexico remains unusually warm. The warm water allows for added moisture return and extra energy to fuel developing storms in the central/eastern U.S. This time of year we still typically have arctic outbreaks that occasionally penetrate into the mid-south, but with the abnormally warm weather in this area, the temperature conflict between warm and cold is much further north than usual.. leading to these early severe weather events at higher latitudes. We'll just have to wait and see what the implications may be on our severe weather season here in the Upper Midwest in the coming months.