Where and when tornadoes are most common in Alabama

Also looking into different tornado terminology
Published: Feb. 23, 2022 at 11:29 AM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Tornadoes are common in Alabama. We all know that at this point. But did you know there are times of year and locations in the state that see more tornadoes than others? It’s true!

Tornadoes can happen at any point in the year, but there are times when they are much more likely. The primary season for severe weather and tornadoes is March, April and the first half of May. That’s when we see the most tornadoes, on average, every year across the state. April is by far the most active month with over 550 tornadoes touching down in Alabama since 1950.

Tornadoes occur all year long in Alabama.
Tornadoes occur all year long in Alabama.(WSFA 12 News)

The other period that sees an uptick in tornadoes is November and December. November has actually seen the 3rd-most tornadoes in Alabama over the last 70+ years. It trails only April and March. The winter is also rather active if we can get the right setups across the Deep South.

The summer months are when tornado activity relaxes quite substantially. It’s not unheard of to get tornadoes in June, July or August, but it is more unusual unless you get a particular setup or landfalling tropical system.

The total number of tornadoes by county between 1950 and 2020.
The total number of tornadoes by county between 1950 and 2020.(NWS)

Tornadoes can also happen in any county in the state. Jefferson, Mobile, Baldwin, Cullman, Madison, Tuscaloosa, and Marshall counties have had the most tornadoes since 1950. For Mobile and Baldwin, the numbers are high because of the tornadoes spawned by landfalling tropical systems in the summer and fall. For the other listed counties, it has to do with the meteorological setups being more favorable for tornadoes across the northern half of the state.

Jefferson, Cullman, Madison, Tuscaloosa, and Marshall are also at the top of the list because they are densely populated. So tornadoes that easily could have gone unnoticed before radar technology became so advanced had a better chance of being spotted in those counties.

For the WSFA 12 News viewing area there are several counties that have seen at least 40 tornadoes since 1950. It’s not like we don’t see tornadoes, it’s just the numbers aren’t as high as the northern half of the state. Montgomery, Covington, Pike, Houston, Lee, and Elmore counties lead the way for our region.

The difference between a watch, warning and emergency.
The difference between a watch, warning and emergency.(WSFA 12 News)

When severe weather and tornadoes are possible, do you know the different alert terms? There are tornado watches, tornado warnings and tornado emergencies. A watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes to form in a rather large area. Not everyone in the watch will see severe weather or tornadoes, but it’s possible over a multi-hour period. You need to be prepared for threatening weather if in a tornado watch.

A tornado warning means a tornado has been spotted or indicated by radar. Warnings last for a much shorter duration -- much less than an hour in most cases -- and mean you need to act immediately to protect yourself and your family. The last of the three, a tornado emergency, is very rare. If you ever see that term there is a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage is likely. Those are only issued when the National Weather Service believes an extremely dangerous and/or violent tornado is on the ground causing extensive damage.

If you live in a mobile home or somewhere unsafe and cannot get to adequate shelter in under 5...
If you live in a mobile home or somewhere unsafe and cannot get to adequate shelter in under 5 minutes, you need to go to shelter when a WATCH is issued.(WSFA 12 News)

If a tornado warning were to be issued, how long would it take you to get to your safe place? If the number is north of 5 minutes you need to make sure you head to a shelter or safe place when a tornado watch is issued. Don’t wait for a warning to be issued if it would take you more than 5 minutes to get to a safe location. Sometimes warnings don’t have much more than a 5-minute lead time, so it’s imperative to be in your safe place already if it would take longer than that to get there.

This is especially true for mobile and manufactured homes. The chance of getting to a safe place in under 5 minutes for those who live in mobile and manufactured homes is quite low. So if you feel as though you’d need more than 5 minutes to feel safe and comfortable in the event of a tornado, we advise seeking shelter for the entire duration of a tornado watch.

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