Breakdown: Why nighttime tornadoes fatalities are increasing

Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 5:13 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A recent study done in the South found that nighttime tornado fatalities are rising.

Tornadoes that happen at night are two times more likely to be deadly compared to tornadoes that strike during the day according to studies.

The study out of Northern Illinois found that about 48,000 tornadoes in the United States from 1950 to 2005, found that roughly one in every 20 overnight tornadoes resulted in deaths, compared to about one in every 50 daytime tornadoes.

A nighttime tornado outbreak killed 24 people on March 3 in Tennessee. That tornado outbreak included an EF4 twister that caused 19 of those deaths. Another tornado outbreak killed 11 people in South Georgia during the pre-dawn hours of Jan 22, 2017. Nighttime tornadoes seem to have increased in the last decade and may be the obvious reason for the spike in nighttime tornado deaths.

Some reasons for more fatalities at night are obvious like it’s dark and hard to see unless it is lit by lightning. Another challenge is that many want to confirm by seeing it first which can waste time. Many storm spotters may not want to risk chasing at night which reduces the ability of meteorologists to confirm tornadoes. One of the more obvious reasons is that many people are asleep and may not hear the warning. Many people are at home and in structures that are not as sturdy as their place of work.

Here are some of the stats around one-third to one-half of tornadoes in 11 states from Oklahoma to West Virginia from 1950 to 2005 touched down at night, 46% of those touched down in Tennessee. The South has some of the highest numbers of mobile homes in the nation and about 61% of tornado fatalities happened in mobile homes happened at night. The growth of the population in the South in large cities and suburbs allows more people to be impacted. Tornadoes do and can strike any time of year. Even in winter months of December through February, tornadoes have averaged around three to six nocturnal tornadoes in the U.S. each month from 1953 through 2015, according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center.

There’s also a noticeable nighttime tornado maximum in November, which lines up with secondary severe weather season which occurs in the Deep South. Some people may not be aware of the second season.

These colder-month tornadoes often occur with a very strong jet stream, meaning winds aloft can move the parent supercells or squall lines in which these tornadoes are embedded at speeds of 60 mph or more, giving little time to seek shelter. Some people may not be aware of the second season.

Some notable deadly nocturnal tornadoes in recent times include:

  • Greensburg, Kansas: May 4, 2007 - 10 fatalities
  • Riegelwood, North Carolina: Nov. 15, 2005 - 8 fatalities
  • Edgewater, Alabama: April 8, 1998 - 32 fatalities

Here are some tips, to help you stay alert at night:

  • Buy an NOAA weather radio. You can find these at most electronics retailers. They feature warning alarms that can be set to sound loudly when any National Weather Service tornado or severe thunderstorm watch or warning is issued.
  • Your smartphone can alert you. Most newer smartphones are able to receive alerts from the local NWS office.
  • Other weather apps can also alert you. Many weather apps, including the WMC First Alert Weather app, can also send alerts to your smartphone, tablet or smartwatch.
  • Know where to go. “Be sure you know your safe place to go before severe weather strikes

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