Tornadoes ravage the South in month of extremes
By Jennifer Gray, CNN Meteorologist
January 2023 will be remembered more for its tornadoes and severe weather than for more traditional winter weather like snow and ice for everyone east of the Rockies. January is not typically a severe weather month, but this year was a big one.
The Storm Prediction Center reports we had 168 preliminary reports of tornadoes this month, most of which were across the southern states.
The number will go down slightly once all the reports have been surveyed, but it is still staggering when you consider the average number of January tornadoes is around 50, putting this year’s total at more than triple the average.
“Most winters you have these repetitive cold fronts that come through, and they scour out the low-level moisture, which is really important for thunderstorm development,” explained Matt Elliott, warning coordination meteorologist at the storm center.
This winter was different. Repeating cold fronts have largely been absent, resulting in warmer temperatures and more moisture across the South.
Much of the South and Southeast ran five to 10 degrees above normal for the month of January, allowing Gulf moisture to spread northward, resulting in more instability and ripe conditions for tornado development.
This is how a thunderstorm produces a tornado
The instability helped produce tornadoes across 16 states this month alone.
The January 12 outbreak produced a whopping 70 tornado reports across seven states. Most notably was the tornado that ripped through Selma, Alabama killing at least six people and devastating the historic downtown.
Watch CNN’s Ryan Young walk through tornado ravaged Selma
If you attribute the warmer air to more tornado activity, Alabama is surely in the mix.
Tuscaloosa is experiencing its third-warmest January on record, as are Jackson, Memphis, Shreveport and Oklahoma City.
Houston is experiencing its second-warmest January on record, and was also an area hit hard this month, with nearly 20 tornado reports around the city less than a week ago.
It is concerning if you consider we are still several months away from the peak of tornado season. However, there is really no way to know if a busy winter means a busy spring.
“I wish we could say with some certainty how the spring would evolve. Unfortunately, we just can’t,” Elliott pointed out. “Oftentimes we have a busy, cool season, and then it’s followed by a quiet spring season, but sometimes it’s vice versa.”
Yet in a warming world, tornado seasons might be widening, and numbers might be changing, especially in the winter months. Elliott said without as many cold fronts coming through during the winter, it opens the door for more severe outbreaks.
“Summer might be coming down a little bit, and winter might be coming up a little bit. So, they’re kind of competing with each other,” Elliott said. “So, the numbers overall might be similar, but there may be some subtle changes in the seasonality and locations that we’re certainly looking at very closely.”
Complacency could be the biggest danger, since tornadoes can happen anywhere and anytime, regardless of the season.
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CNN Meteorologist Haley Brink contributed to this story.