AccuWeather’s 2023 US tornado, severe weather forecast
The peak of severe weather season is fast approaching, and AccuWeather forecasters have broken down the risks expected, including how tornado numbers this year may spike compared to 2022.
A tornado touches down in Tulsa, Okla., on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Larry Papke)
Meteorological spring brings the peak of severe thunderstorm activity across the United States, and AccuWeather meteorologists are predicting a bookend season for tornadoes and severe weather.
This year got off to a hypercharged start in terms of twisters, as January 2023 became the second-most active January on record for the number of tornadoes. The 168 preliminary tornado reports across the country were only behind January 1999, which had 214. Severe weather continued throughout February and into the start of March, with included a severe weather outbreak on March 2-3 that claimed the lives of at least 13 people.
The early surge in severe weather may wind down through the middle of March, but the downturn in thunderstorm activity will only be a temporary break. The severe weather season runs from March through May and will feature peaks and valleys rather than a persistent barrage of storms and tornadoes, AccuWeather forecasters say.
A couple looks over what is left of his sister's house that was destroyed when a tornado ripped through Pratt City last Wednesday afternoon on Tuesday, May 3, 2011, in Pratt City, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
During March, April and May, the ingredients for intense thunderstorms and tornadoes come together over the central U.S. more frequently than any other time of the year. Cold air diving from the North and warm, humid air rising from the South clash over the nation's midsection. This, combined with an active storm track and stronger sunshine than the winter months, primes the atmosphere for thundery chaos.
AccuWeather's team of long-range forecasters, led by Senior Meteorologist Paul Pastelok, says additional factors will contribute to a heightened risk for severe weather at times this spring.
Unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico will provide extra fuel to feed violent thunderstorms over the central and eastern U.S. Additionally, La Niña has ended, which will alter the weather patterns over North America in such a way that it will be more conducive for the development of severe weather.
"A couple of strong events" will be possible in the eastern Plains, the Tennessee Valley and part of the Ohio Valley at times in March, Pastelok said. This is a similar area that was blasted by a severe weather outbreak on Thursday, March 2, through Friday, March 3.
A shift in the weather pattern at times could lead to lulls in severe weather, especially in March and April. While severe weather will not be completely absent during this timeframe, the emerging pattern will limit the number and intensity of severe weather outbreaks.
The frequency of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms will rebound late in April and into May, as well as expand into the Southeast, Midwest and northern Plains.
The resurgence of severe weather will include a new risk.
Pastelok explained that long-lived complexes of thunderstorms could track across the northern Plains and into the Midwest in May. These clusters of severe storms are common during the second half of spring and throughout the summer and are notorious for strong winds. When conditions are right, they can evolve into derechoes. However, there is a chance that the frequency of these events may be lower this year and could track farther south than in previous years.
How many tornadoes will there be in 2023?
AccuWeather predicts 1,055 to 1,200 twisters will touch down across the United States throughout 2023, slightly below the historical average of 1,225.
Even with a fast and furious start to March, tornado activity for the month as a whole could finish near historical averages and significantly lower than what was observed in March 2022. Multiple outbreaks last March spawned 233 tornadoes, including an EF3 that ripped through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
Historical averages are based on tornado data from 1991 through 2020.
AccuWeather long-range forecasters say that the tornado count in April will likely finish below the historical average of 182 due to cooler, stable air across most of the central U.S. throughout the first portion of the month.
As the weather pattern shifts again during the second half of April, it will open the door for more widespread severe weather and tornado outbreaks, with the threat persisting throughout May.
Between 225 and 300 tornadoes are forecast to occur in the U.S. throughout May, around the typical twister count for the month and near to slightly above the count from last May of 238.
The focal point of the worst severe weather outbreaks is likely to follow the trend of recent years when the worst of the storms unfolded over the eastern Plains into the Gulf Coast and Tennessee Valley.
This is outside the area traditionally considered Tornado Alley, which extends from central Texas through South Dakota.
"Drought conditions will be across the central and southern Plains, especially the High Plains," Pastelok said. The worst drought in the entire country is currently ongoing in this zone, especially across western Kansas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Too much dry air and heat will put a cap on the severe potential across this region as the parched earth deprives the atmosphere of moisture. As a result, it will be difficult for a high frequency of thunderstorms to develop in this area and especially challenging for a tornado to reach the ground.
Any thunderstorms that do develop over these drought-stricken areas will bring beneficial rainfall for farmers, but large hail and strong winds could also lead to crop damage.
Severe weather tends to decrease some in June, July and August, but thunderstorm activity generally becomes more widespread across the country.
Summertime thunderstorms, even when not severe, can turn deadly in a flash as people spend more time outdoors, where they are vulnerable to lightning strikes.
A 2020 report from the National Lightning Safety Council analyzed lightning-related fatalities across the country from 2006 through 2019 and found July to be the deadliest month for lightning strikes, followed by June and August.
"About two-thirds of the victims were enjoying outdoor leisure activities prior to being struck," the report said. "The key to being safe in a thunderstorm is to get to a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant."
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