Why So Many Tornado Deaths This Year?

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2011 has been a devastating year for tornado related deaths in the U.S., despite years of advancement with early warning technologies, radar technology, and public alert systems.

Perhaps all this science is enabling too much of a sense of false security and complacency. During April 25-28 more than 300 people lost their lives in the South and the Midwest. Just weeks later, a monster tornado took 142 lives around Joplin, MO. This is now the deadliest year for tornadoes since 1950 based on National Weather Service figures.

Advanced radar is now able to provide warnings of as much as 20 minutes. So, why have there been so many tornado deaths this year, given our current state of technology?


The answer seems to break down into four parts. La-Nina, Urban sprawl, Time-of-day, and Complacency.

La-Nina and Tornadoes

La-Nina events since 1950

1974, similar to 2011, produced record tornadoes, and also occurred during a La-Nina ocean cycle. La Nina is a cycle whereby the surface temperatures of the ocean become cooler than normal (by 3 to 5 degrees C), off of the coast of South America in the east-central Pacific. Among other things, this affects the location of the jet stream and the boundaries of cool and warm moist air that produces storms.


Urban Sprawl and Tornadoes


It is plain to see the urban sprawl that has occurred over the past few decades. Where there was once open land, there are now countless housing developments radiating out from the city centers. In days of old, a given tornado may have ripped through farmland and never made the evening news. Today, the odds are much higher that any given tornado will happen across developed land.

Time-of-day and Tornadoes


Most tornadoes will develop in the afternoon and early evening, after the sun has heated the earth beneath, adding lift to the mixture of catalysts needed to spin up a tornado. Tornadoes usually occur during a time-of-day when they can be seen (except for rain-wrapped tornadoes), and a time of day when people are up and about – often not even at home – typically alert to the weather around them.

When a tornado strikes at night, at home, especially when people are asleep, there is often little time to take action and assess the situation. A public weather hazard alert radio will surely help to save your life, so long as you have one, it’s turned on, and you have a plan of action.

Complacency and Tornadoes


Many people believe that “it will never happen to me”, and underestimate the risks and odds of being involved in a disaster like a tornado. We have become dependent upon technology, and often confuse these technologies as though they are safety nets. They are tools, for sure, but a ‘net’, no. You still must take action after being warned.

Take Action


I have never lived in an area at risk for tornadoes. But if I did, my home would definitely have one of two things… either an underground basement (with a secure area) or an underground storm shelter. ‘Life’ is worth more than money, and I would do whatever it took to be sure my home was equipped with one or the other.

I’m a bit of a weather nut anyway, and if under a tornado watch or severe thunderstorm watch, I would be following the radar, and would be aware of the progression of the storm in relation to where I am at the moment. Even if out and about – away from home – today’s cell phones can typically receive radar updates from a given local outlet. I would have my favorite one bookmarked for quick access.

After seeing the horrific damage in Joplin, MO, simply moving to a ‘safe’ part of the house did not provide any safety whatsoever. EVERYTHING was shredded horizontal. The ONLY safety would have been somewhere below the surface, underground. Think about it…

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