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How Rare are Tornadoes in January in the Southeast?

27 Jan 2021, 2:30 am

After a deadly and destructive tornado ripped through Fultondale, Alabama Monday night, people flocked to social media to express their surprise that such an event could occur in the midst of winter. But are tornadoes in the Southeast actually rare during the first month of the year? The answer is a pretty resounding “no.”

Many have heard of the secondary severe season in the United States, which typically ramps up during the late fall, mostly notably during the month of November. What many may not realize is, this secondary severe season carries on through the winter months. This occurs due to the position of the jetstream often moving over the area, as well as the availability of moisture and warmth from the Gulf of Mexico. The graphic at the top of the page shows the average number of tornadoes that occur in each state during the first month of the year.

In fact, while secondary severe season is often described as most active in November and early December, Alabama actually has recorded more tornadoes during the month of January than in December over the 70 year period starting in 1950. January is Alabama’s sixth most active month for tornadic activity, behind the summer months and the early fall. Tornado counts in winter would likely be ahead of the warm season across the entire Southeast if tropical cyclones didn’t impact the region. Florida averages hundreds of tornadoes during that time of year.

Monday’s tornado was on the strong side, given a rating of EF-3. While strong tornadoes (EF-2 or greater) are most common during the spring severe weather season, they can and do occur during any month of the year.

Looking at climatology for Monday itself (January 25th), the probability of a significant tornado over the 30 year period from 1982-2011 is highest across Northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Southwest Tennessee.

Alabama has had it’s share of notable January tornadoes, including an F-3 in 1988 in Cullman, as well as the January 11th 1885 event, which produced five strong tornadoes, four of which were rated F-3 or higher.

So, while Monday’s tornado was certainly on the stronger side, it probably should not be labeled as a “rare” event. Unfortunately, numerous injuries and one death have been reported from the Fultondale area, which should serve as a reminder to always be prepared for severe weather and have multiple ways to receive severe weather updates and warnings from your local National Weather Service office. Having emergency alerts activated on your mobile device and a NOAA Weather Radio can save your life.

Images in this story are courtesy of NOAA and the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama.

About the author

Rob grew up in South Florida, where daily afternoon storms and hurricanes piqued his interest in meteorology early on. That interest was fostered by his teachers and his father, who one time brought him onto the roof of their home to watch a funnel cloud move through the Everglades several miles away. ... Load MoreYears of filmmaking and tv production in high school gradually pushed him toward broadcast meteorology at Florida State University, where he joined and eventually led the student run daily weather show. After graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Meteorology, he began his career at KESQ in Palm Springs, California before heading to KFSN in Fresno and WLOS in Asheville, North Carolina. He has covered a diverse array of extreme weather events, including haboobs and flash flooding in the desert, extreme snow in the Sierra, hurricanes, and Appalachian ice storms. He also enjoys telling stories and reporting about weather issues. Connect with Rob on Twitter