‘Tornado Alley’ has shifted from the Great Plains to the Southeast, new research says

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – A new study suggests Tornado Alley has shifted to the Midwest and Southeast, getting closer to North Carolina.

Lead researcher Dr. Tim Coleman says if you thought Tornado Alley was in the Great Plains, encompassing states like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, you technically would have been right up until the 1980s.

Dr. Coleman found that from 1951-1985, tornadoes were most 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 really know for sure why this happened,” Dr. Coleman said. “It could be related to climate change.”

While he says the number of tornadoes in North Carolina has remained more or less the same over time, he says it is possible that Tornado Alley could continue to shift east.

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

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

Other notable findings in the study were that tornadoes are becoming more common in the colder seasons. Also, while the tornadoes themselves haven’t increased in intensity or magnitude, the damage and destruction left behind have gotten worse.

“The amount of damage done has increased because there’s a lot more people, and especially the Southeast has really exploded in population,” Dr. Coleman said. ”Whereas 50 years ago a significant 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 comes to town, especially after learning from the experience of the deadly Ocean Ridge Plantation tornado back in 2021.

“Our susceptibility to tornadoes here in southeastern NC, that knowledge has been coming more and more available,” McIntire said. “That [tornado] kind of woke everybody up in the sense of ‘Hey, we are susceptible to these storms.’ In the instance of the 2021 storm, that at one point was just a small little red dot on our system and it went from that to an EF-3 in what appeared to be a matter of minutes.”

McIntire said one of his main 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 to take in the event they’re in the path of the warning,” McIntire said. “The public education side and preparedness is what we want to focus on currently and in the future.”

Dr. Coleman says for the time being, though, people living on the coast have bigger threats than tornadoes looming.

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