Four Dead, Dozens Hurt in Southeast Tornado Outbreak

Southeast Tornadoes being pursued by a storm chaser in a red pickup truck

In another stark example of how dangerous unexpected tornado outbreaks can be, the tornado outbreak in the Southeast on December 16-17 claimed four lives and injured dozens. Caused partly by an unusual weather pattern that saw very warm air and very cold air to collide in the Southeast, the tornado outbreak spawned at least a dozen twisters.

Tornado Outbreak Pounds the South

Due to unusual weather conditions between the cool, arctic air of the jet stream and warm air flowing up from the Gulf region, a massive storm band developed over the Deep South early Monday. This storm band, in turn, brought massive rainfall, high wind speeds and, of course, tornadoes in large numbers.

This strange, unseasonal outbreak was, to put it mildly, unexpected. The National Weather Service warned residents of the region as soon as they were aware of the gathering storm, but it was such a sudden outbreak that many communities were caught unawares. This is likely the reason for the four fatalities and numerous other injuries: People couldn’t get out of the storm’s path quickly enough.

Storm Chasing Opportunity

The southern storm band would have offered a fantastic storm chasing opportunity, but it was a difficult storm to track. Since it appeared so suddenly, and outside of the peak tornado season, many chasers weren’t in any position to study the storm up close.

Likewise, the storm’s appearance over the Deep South, instead of Tornado Alley, made it so that many chasers local to the prime spots in the Midwest weren’t able to investigate the easternmost tornadoes in the outbreak. Tornadoes as far east as Alabama aren’t unheard of, but they are certainly a rarer sight than those found in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

What We Learned

This out-of-season storm outbreak, occurring over the Deep South, offers many lessons. While weather service agencies are still parsing the data collected during the outbreak, it will likely offer up many insights into the formation of tornadoes, the role that weather conditions play in storm genesis, and how we can detect storms at an earlier point in their development to help save lives in the future.

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Written by
Jeremy Liu

Jeremy Liu has always been fascinated by extreme weather—but he prefers to write about the world’s deadliest storms from the safety and comfort of his home office. He’s much less likely to get hit with a flying cow that way. (And yes, Jeremy’s favorite movie is Twister.)

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Written by Jeremy Liu