Tornado Alley has shifted from the Great Plains to the Southeast, a new study says

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – A new study suggests that Tornado Alley has moved into the Midwest and Southeast, approaching North Carolina.

The main researcher Dr. Tim Coleman says that if you thought Tornado Alley was in the Great Plains, including states like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, you would technically be in the 1980s.

Dr. Coleman found that from 1951-1985, tornadoes were more frequent in the Great Plains. However, from 1986-2020, states like Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky began to see the most tornadoes.

“We don’t know for sure why this happened,” said Dr. Coleman. “It could be linked to climate change.”

While he says the number of tornadoes in North Carolina has remained roughly the same over time, he says it’s possible Tornado Alley could continue to shift eastward.

In that case, he said it’s important to recognize that tornadoes are a different animal than hurricanes.

“Tornadoes are different from hurricanes because you can’t leave town,” said Dr. Coleman. “You don’t know, you don’t have time.”

Other notable findings in the study were that tornadoes are becoming more common in cold seasons. Also, while the tornadoes themselves have not increased in intensity or size, the damage and destruction left behind has worsened.

“The amount of damage done has increased because there are so many more people, and the southeast in particular has really exploded in population,” said Dr. Coleman. “Whereas 50 years ago a large tornado would have just hit trees, now it’s hitting subdivisions, neighborhoods, businesses and things of that nature.”

Brunswick County Emergency Management Director David McIntire says Brunswick County EMS is trained and prepared for whenever the next tornado hits the city, especially after learning from the experience of the deadly Ocean Ridge Plantation tornado in 2021.

“Our sensitivity to tornadoes here in Southeastern NC, that knowledge has come more and more readily available,” McIntire said. “She [tornado] kind of woke everyone up to “hey, we’re susceptible to these storms.” In the example of the 2021 storm, it was at one point just a small red dot in our system and went from that to an EF-3 in what appeared to be a matter of minutes.”

McIntire said one of his top priorities when it comes to tornadoes, especially if they were to become more common in the area, is to educate the public since it’s something they’re not used to.

“Understanding the difference between tornado watches and warnings, what actions should be taken if they are in the path of the warning,” McIntire said. “The public education and preparedness side is what we want to focus on now and in the future.”

Dr. Coleman says that for now, however, people living on the coast face greater threats than incoming tornadoes.

“Honestly, as far as your area as well as the Gulf Coast where I live in Alabama, this hurricane season looks like it’s going to be very active,” said Dr. Coleman. “I’m more worried about that at the moment.”

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