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Rare January tornado outbreak kills two, injures 100 in Alabama

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 4:46 PM GMT on January 23, 2012

The calendar says it's the coldest month of winter, but today's weather is more typical of March, as a vigorous spring-like storm system has spawned a rare and deadly January tornado outbreak. Twenty tornadoes were reported in Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee last night and this morning, killing at least two, injuring 100, and causing major damage. Two deaths were reported in Canter Point and one unconfirmed death in Oak Grove in Alabama, from a tornado that ripped through the area near 3:30 am EST. The deaths were the first of the 2012 tornado season. In Clanton, about 50 miles south of Birmingham, Alabama, a separate tornado hit near 8:12 am EST this morning, trapping people in overturned trailer homes, destroying the WKLF radio studio, and toppling a 302-foot high transmission tower.

Figure 1. Satellite image taken at 9:45 am EST Monday January 23, 2012, of the major spring-like storm that spawned tornadoes over the Southern U.S. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Figure 2. Radar reflectivity image of the tornado that hit Clanton, Alabama this morning, trapping people in overturned trailer homes, destroying the WKLF radio studio, and toppling a 302-foot high transmission tower.

Significant historical January tornado outbreaks
Historically, January has been the least active month for tornadoes in the U.S. According to the Tornado History Project, during the 61-year period 1950 - 2010, 1223 January tornadoes occurred--an average of twenty per year. There have been two Januarys with no reported tornadoes--2003 and 1986. Thus far in 2012, there have been 44 preliminary tornado reports, so we are already at double the historical January average, with a week still to go in the month. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center has put Alabama and Georgia in their "Slight Risk" area for severe weather the remainder of today, so it is likely we will add a few more tornadoes to this month's tally before the outbreak is finished. January 2012 appears likely to become one of the top-five busiest months for January tornadoes in recorded history. Only four years since 1950 have had more than 50 January tornadoes:

January 1999 218
January 2008 88
January 1975 54
January 1997 50

The most recent significant January tornado outbreak occurred last year on January 1, 2011, when seven tornadoes, including two EF-3s, touched down in Mississippi, injuring two people.

The most prolific January tornado outbreak on record occurred January 21 - 22, 1999, when 126 tornadoes, including one violent F-4, hit Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, and Alabama, killing nine people. A separate outbreak four days earlier, on January 17, spawned 22 tornadoes.

On January 7 - 11, 2008, a series of 75 tornadoes hit the U.S. This second busiest-ever U.S. January tornado outbreak hit southwestern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas and the surrounding areas the hardest. A strong supercell in northern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin produced that region's first January tornadoes since 1967. Four people were killed, and the tornadoes did $88 million in damage. Fifteen strong EF-2 and EF-3 tornadoes were reported.

The deadliest January tornado since record keeping began in 1950 occurred on January 23, 1969, when an F-4 tornado hit a 5-county region south of Jackson Mississippi, killing 32 people.

Spring-like thunderstorms hit Chicago
Thunderstorms along the cold front from the storm that spawned today's deadly tornadoes rumbled through Chicago, Illinois last night, dropping over one-half inch of rain on ground covered by four inches of snow. Spring-like January thunderstorms in Chicago used to be a rare occurrence, but have become increasingly common in recent years. During the 50-year period 1947- 1996, Chicago's O'Hare Airport recorded ten days with thunder, on days when the high temperature reached at least 40°F. In the 16-year period 1997- 2012, there have been nine such days, so January spring-like thunderstorms have roughly tripled in frequency in Chicago in recent years. January 2008 set the record for most January thunderstorm days in Chicago, with three.

Big solar flare headed toward Earth
This morning at 03:39 UTC, big sunspot 1402 erupted, sending a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed towards Earth. This CME is expected to set off a solar storm on January 24 - 25. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center is advising that high-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms; long-duration storms may cause transformer damage. Satellite orientation irregularities may occur; possible changes in satellite drag affect orbit predictions. HF radio propagation can fade at higher latitudes, and aurora may be seen as low as New York, Idaho, mid-Aleutians. According to NOAA, this is the strongest solar storm since May 2005.

Jeff Masters
Because the night belongs to lovers.
Because the night belongs to lovers.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.