Where February’s Tornado Threat Is Typically Highest

Published in 9 February, 2021

At a Glance

  • Parts of the South are most likely to have tornadoes in February.

  • February averages the second-fewest number of tornadoes per year.

  • Over the past 20 years, February had the third-highest number of tornado deaths.

February is a winter month, but severe weather is still a threat, and when tornadoes occur, they can be deadly. In fact, the threat of severe weather and tornadoes is expected across parts of the South this week.

Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes often develop in the winter months when a strong jet stream disturbance moves across the South, Ohio Valley or East and cold air near the surface is either in retreat or absent.

The map above shows where tornadoes occur most often in February: mainly in the Deep South, but also in the Ohio Valley or parts of the Carolinas from time to time. The South is at an elevated risk due to the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, where warm, moist air can surge northward, adding to instability in the atmosphere.

However, tornadoes can develop outside of the red-shaded areas on rare occasions. On Feb. 24, 2016, Virginia’s first deadly February tornadoes occurred and the first F/EF2 or stronger February tornado on record formed in Pennsylvania.

February’s Tornado History

February has averaged 41 tornadoes in the 20-year period of 1999 to 2018. This makes it the second-least tornadic month, in a virtual tie with January. Four of those 20 years have reported less than 10 tornadoes, while two years saw more than 100 in February.

Average monthly U.S. tornadoes, 1999-2018.

February 2016 had the second-highest number of tornadoes in the month when 136 twisters occurred; Records date back to 1950. The record for the most February tornadoes was set in 2008, when 147 tornadoes were confirmed. February 2010 had the fewest tornadoes for the month, with just one.

The so-called Super Tuesday outbreak of Feb. 5-6, 2008, had the largest number of tornadoes for a single February event, with 86 confirmed. Feb. 23-24, 2016, ranks as the second-largest February tornado outbreak, with 75 tornadoes, according to NOAA’s storm events database.

February’s deadliest tornado on record since 1950 was an F4 that struck Mississippi on Feb. 21, 1971, killing 58 people, said Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert with The Weather Channel. An outbreak of tornadoes on Feb. 19-20, 1884, reportedly left 167 people dead in the Southeast.

Just last year, one person was killed by an EF3 tornado that tore through Columbus, Mississippi, on Feb. 23, 2019.

Winter Tornadoes Are Dangerous

Several factors make winter severe outbreaks so dangerous:

Storms move rapidly: Severe thunderstorms can often move at speeds above 55 mph, given the strength of steering winds aloft. This is why it’s best to take shelter immediately when receiving a warning. Don’t go outside or look out the window first to verify the threat.

Tornadoes can be rain-wrapped: Brief, rain-wrapped tornadoes can sometimes form with little warning embedded in long squall lines of severe thunderstorms, even if no supercell thunderstorms develop. In some supercell tornadoes, rain might hide the tornado.

Straight-line wind damage: A fast-moving squall line of severe thunderstorms can produce straight-line winds on the order of those estimated with EF0 or, in more rare incidents, EF1 tornadoes. Downed trees and power lines and even structural damage are possible in these situations, without a tornado in progress.

Severe weather can happen any hour of the day: Severe thunderstorms can erupt during the overnight hours or in the morning, not necessarily during the typical late-afternoon/evening time frame, with such strong jet-stream-level energy in winter.

If you don’t have one, it’s time to review or develop a severe weather plan.

Do you know where to take shelter if you receive a tornado warning in the middle of the night? How would you receive that warning? Severe weather will ramp up into March, followed by the peak months of April, May and June.

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