Although February is a winter month, tornadoes are still a threat this time of the year. When winter tornadoes hit, they can be as deadly as they are in other seasons if truckers aren’t prepared. The South is more prone to February tornadoes than any other region of the country, and there’s a threat of severe weather there Thursday.
Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes often develop in the winter when a strong jet stream disturbance moves across regions of warm, humid air near the surface, while much colder air pools aloft, increasing instability.
The map above shows where tornadoes occur most often in February (red-shaded areas) — mainly in the Deep South, but also in the Ohio Valley and North Carolina from time to time. The South is at an elevated risk due to its proximity to the warm Gulf of Mexico waters.
However, tornadoes can develop outside the red-shaded areas on rare occasions. On Feb. 24, 2016, Virginia’s first deadly February tornadoes on record occurred, and the first F/EF2 or stronger February tornado on record formed in Pennsylvania.
February’s tornado history
February averaged 41 tornadoes in the 20-year period from 2000 to 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This makes it the third-least tornadic month — December and January are number one and two, respectively — but there are extremes on both ends of the spectrum.
February 2008 and 2016 each had more than 100 tornadoes. On the other hand, four of the years between 2000 and 2019 had fewer than 10 February tornadoes each. Last year’s preliminary count for February was 11.
The record for the most February tornadoes was set in 2008, when 147 were confirmed; 2010 had the fewest February tornadoes with just one.
The outbreak of Feb. 5-6, 2008, had the most tornadoes for a single February event, with 86 confirmed. Feb. 23-24, 2016, ranks as the second-largest February tornado outbreak with 75, according to NOAA’s storm events database.
February’s deadliest tornado on record since 1950, when official records began, was an F4 that struck Mississippi on Feb. 21, 1971, killing 58 people. An outbreak of tornadoes on Feb. 19-20, 1884, reportedly killed 167 in the Southeast.
The most recent deadly tornado to strike in February hit Brunswick County, North Carolina, in 2021. It was an EF3 that killed three people, one of just 11 reported February tornadoes across the U.S. that year.
Winter tornado dangers
Winter tornadoes in the Southeast can catch drivers and the general public off guard since severe storms that spawn tornadoes are more common in the spring. However, time and time again, Mother Nature has proved that severe storms can strike any time of the year.
The following factors can make outbreaks even more dangerous, including in winter:
Rapid movement: Severe thunderstorms can often move at speeds of 55 mph or faster, given the strength of steering winds aloft. This is why it’s best to take shelter immediately when a warning is issued. Don’t go outside or look out the window first to verify the threat.
Rain-wrapped tornadoes: Brief, rain-wrapped tornadoes can sometimes form with little warning, embedded in long squall lines of severe thunderstorms. Even in some supercell tornadoes, rain might hide the tornado.
Straight-line winds: A fast-moving squall line of severe thunderstorms can produce straight-line winds that are as damaging as an EF0 or, in rare cases, an EF1 tornado. These winds can fan out across a large area, knocking down power lines, uprooting trees and flattening crops.
Any hour of the day: Most severe thunderstorms erupt during the peak heating hours of the afternoon. But with the right dynamics in the atmosphere, they can also strike during overnight and morning hours.
The best line of defense for drivers is to make sure the weather apps on their mobile devices are set to “location” or “GPS” mode. This will ensure that they receive local severe weather alerts no matter where they are along their routes.
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