Severe weather season isn’t defined by the equinox like the March 19 beginning of spring. Past experience shows that we can consider severe weather season to start today. Extreme air mass contrasts are a unique fact that makes the United States stand out among all other countries in the world. Even places that get hit by traveling cyclones, like Bangladesh or India, don’t have the violent collision of different bodies of air that we see in the south central and southeastern states.
Last year, a tornado outbreak ravaged the Southeastern U.S. as a winter storm arrived on March 3. Cold, dry air crashed into warm, humid conditions in Alabama. An EF4 tornado touched down in Lee County, killing 23 residents, with wind speeds estimated at 170mph. Another string of tornadoes headed into Georgia, following a straight line from north of Columbus to Macon. After that, the storm seemed to be weakening for a while, but intensified again just ahead of the South Carolina border. More twisters formed on both sides of the state line, continuing on a northeastward path to Columbia.
In 2017, a similar outbreak struck in states farther north. From February 28 to March 1, another tornado reached category EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. It traveled from Missouri to Illinois. Three weaker but still highly destructive twisters followed, each rated EF3 with winds between 136 and 165 miles per hour.
Alabama was the target in 2007 when a violent storm destroyed hundreds of homes in Enterprise, south of Montgomery. The resulting EF4 twister killed 8 students in a local school and injured 50.
March 1, 1997 was a similar day of severe weather. Arkansas was hit hardest, again with multiple EF4 tornadoes, and slightly less powerful ones in Mississippi and Kentucky.
Unlike the huge, slow-moving hurricanes, tornadoes allow for very little warning time before they strike. At best, Doppler radar can predict a touchdown 20 minutes ahead of time. That’s when the Weather Service indicates a tornado warning, the highest level of alerts. Preceding the warning, we usually get several hours of tornado watch, indicating that a warning may follow that day. During a tornado watch, it’s wise to check for weather updates frequently, and be ready to move to a place of safety within minutes. When a warning comes, it’s time to seek shelter immediately.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.