If it feels like you hear about tornadoes more frequently these days, you're not imagining things. Better early-storm detection — including sharper radar technology, more well-trained storm spotters, and stronger communications — is allowing meteorologists to see twisters coming from further afield. That means we hear more about more tornado systems, including the weaker ones.
We're also hearing about tornadoes in places outside the well-known "Tornado Alley," where storms are known to terrorize a north-south swath of the American heartland from Iowa to Texas. This area still beats all others in pure number of twisters. But when it comes to expensive property damage — and number of deaths due to tornados — another area has it beat: Dixie Alley.
Eastern Texas, most of Louisiana, all of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, and much of Arkansas and Tennessee are included in this area.
According to Bloomburg, "Since 1997, on average, tornadoes in Dixie Alley have caused more than $600 million in property damage annually (accounting for inflation) and killed more than 40 people a year, compared with $470 million in damage and 13 deaths a year in Tornado Alley. And that’s despite almost 3,000 more twisters touching down in Tornado Alley during that time."
Part of the reason so many lives were lost was because in the Southeast, these storms often form quickly (some in just 15 minutes) and often occur at night when the distinctive cone-shape of the twister can't be seen, and people may be asleep.
Mother Nature can produce one at any time
Technically, tornadoes can strike anywhere, anytime; whether they form is purely dependent on atmospheric conditions. There have even been twisters in Alaska and the Northeast, as a destructive storm in late May, just north of New York City proves. How much damage they do once they touch down can be affected by topography, but tornadoes can form almost anywhere.
While most tornado damage and deaths in the Northern Hemisphere happen in the spring, from March to May, Dixie Alley also experiences a second uptick in tornado energy in November. That's because moisture from the Gulf of Mexico collides with the jet stream that's moving down from the Great Plains.
The impact a tornado has isn't all caused by atmospheric conditions: The states within Dixie Alley have a higher population density than the Great Plains and Tornado Alley. There are a number of fast-growing cities in the Southeast, so more people are affected when a twister passes through. (Atlanta, for example, has grown by 40 percent since 2000.) Also, more people live in mobile homes in Dixie Alley, and this type of housing is more vulnerable than houses with foundations and basements.
Despite the seeming increase in tornadoes, it's more about perception than reality. Since the middle of the 20th century, "there is no discernable trend in either the frequency of or fatalities associated with strong and violent tornadoes," according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.