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NSSL research shows deadly U.S. winter tornadoes are not rare

Deadly tornadoes tore through the Mid-South Tuesday, February 5, 2008 killing 58 people. NSSL scientist Harold Brooks studies the climatology of tornadoes, and noted, “While this is not a normal event, it’s not an incredibly rare event.”

Brooks developed and applied techniques to estimate the occurrence of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Accurate estimates of the true threats from severe weather are of use to a wide range of users, including weather forecasters, the emergency management community, the insurance industry and the general public.

Winter tornado outbreaks occur in the southeast U.S. “roughly once a year,” but the death toll from this most recent outbreak, the highest in more than two decades, sets it apart from others. The risk for severe weather on February 5 was forecast by NOAA almost a week in advance, but the devastating loss of life may be partially explained by lack of public awareness that tornadoes can and do occur in the winter in the southern U.S.

Last week’s storms serve as a reminder how crucial it is to recognize the nature of the threat posed by tornadoes in the U.S., and the importance of preparedness for emergency management and response for natural disasters.

Significance: Highly accurate and accessible estimates of long-term threats from tornadoes, thunderstorm winds and large hail will significantly improve the effectiveness of weather forecasts and warnings of hazardous weather events that could cause loss of life and property.