Winter Tornadoes Hit Midwest: How Common Are The Off-Season Storms?

By Josh Lieberman on February 21, 2014 4:29 PM EST

winter tornado
A winter tornado hit the U.S. yesterday. Winter tornadoes are relatively rare in February. (Photo: Reuters)

A somewhat rare winter tornado hit Illinois yesterday, the first to hit the U.S. since January 11, when four storms struck the Midwest and South. Because tornadoes usually require warm, humid air to form, it's not surprising that winter tornadoes are relatively rare. But they do happen, as 66,500 Illinois residents without power can tell you.

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There have been no injuries reported from the Illinois tornado, which is especially fortunate considering winter tornadoes can be more dangerous than warm-month tornadoes. It isn't that winter tornadoes are stronger, but that they have the potential to be deadlier. "The big problem is that the tornadoes themselves tend to be moving faster," said Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., in 2008. The upper atmosphere winds that lead to winter tornadoes move faster than during warm months, and faster moving storms can mean less time to get out of the way.

Several other factors make winter tornadoes especially dangerous. The storm can be rain-wrapped, meaning it is embedded in a thunderstorm and can (falsely) appear to be no more dangerous than regular rain. Winter tornadoes are also capable of developing overnight and in the morning--rather than the more typical late afternoon or evening--so residents could be sleeping and unprepared when they hit.

According to the Weather Channel, the months with the highest average number of U.S. tornadoes from 1984-2013 are June, April and May, with 211, 227 and 270 tornadoes, respectively. Winter tornadoes are much rarer, with December seeing only 23 tornadoes, January 39 and February 96.

In 2008, one of the deadliest February winter tornados occurred when the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak hit the Southern U.S. and the Ohio Valley. The winter tornado outbreak consisted of 87 tornadoes over the course of 15 hours on February 5 and 6. The tornadoes were especially destructive in the heavily populated areas of Memphis, Jackson and Nashville, Tenn., as well as in north-central Alabama. Hundreds of people were injured and 57 killed across four states, with total damages exceeding $1 billion.

The only deadlier February tornado in modern times was the Mississippi Delta tornado outbreak in 1971. That event saw 19 tornadoes hit the Lower Mississippi River Valley and Southeastern U.S. on February 21 and February 22. The majority of the 123 fatalities resulted from three strong tornadoes in western Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana.

Below, you can see video of yesterday's winter tornado near Jacksonville, Ill.

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