How to Know a Tornado is Coming?

April, May, and June are the three most active months for tornadoes in the U.S. comprising more than half of the annual average of 1,333 twisters

Is a tornado coming? An RV is not a safe place to be during a tornado. Here are warning signs and how to stay safe in the face of a tornado.

Tornado season is here! How do you know if a tornado is coming? 

Here is my guide to all things tornado! I cover the tornado warning signs and how to stay safe during and after one occurs. 

What is a tornado? 

I know most of you know this but you’d be surprised how often this question is searched for in Google! I did say this guide is for all things tornado so here’s a quick definition.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that reaches from a thunderstorm to the ground beneath it. Most tornadoes are thin but some can be greater than two miles wide. A tornado hits when warm air collides with cold air.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado season

Tornadoes can occur in the U.S. at any time throughout the year but there’s a distinct seasonal peak in tornadic activity and it starts in April. Long-term severe weather records show April, May, and June are the three most active months for tornadoes in the U.S.

Between 1991 and 2020, an average of 1,333 tornadoes were documented across the country each year of which more than half―54 percent―occurred between April and June.

Looking back on history, May is typically the most active month for tornadoes averaging 294 each year. That’s followed by April and June, each with an average of 212 tornadoes.

But remember―these are just averages based on a 30-year period and the weather doesn’t always follow what’s considered to be average.

Different weather patterns that set up each spring can cause the number of twisters between April and June to be significantly greater or much fewer than the 718 tornadoes that are typical during those three months.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where do most tornadoes occur? 

Tornado outbreaks during spring are most common when a southward dip in the jet stream punches into the Plains or Midwest and warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico surges northward out ahead of it at the surface.

A stronger jet stream can be fuel for extreme weather adding spin and energy needed in the atmosphere that will allow for thunderstorms to grow and intensify, potentially developing into supercell thunderstorms that could produce tornadoes if wind shear―the change in wind speed and/or direction with height―near the surface is particularly strong.

By the spring, the jet stream is migrating northward out of the South and setting up more frequently over the Plains and Midwest as it retreats toward the Canadian border for the summer.

That’s why the potential for tornadoes increases in Tornado Alley during the spring while the risk of tornadoes decreases for the southern U.S.

The term Tornado Alley has been given to the broad area where most tornadoes occur in the United States. The boundaries of Tornado Alley change depending on the criteria you use to define it. 

Generally, the region includes central Texas stretching horizontally through Oklahoma to northern Iowa. Then from central Kansas and Nebraska eastward to the west edge of Ohio. 

The U.S. tornado threat shifts from place to place during the year. The Southeast states are threatened during the cooler months. The southern and central Plains are most at risk in May and June. The early summer is a risky time for the northern Plains and Midwest areas. 

While tornadoes generally stay in these regions they have occurred in all fifty states!

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado watch and tornado warning

Tornado watch

A Tornado Watch is issued by the meteorologists at the NOAA Storm Prediction Center. They watch the weather all day, every day across the U.S. for signs of severe weather. A watch can cover parts of or entire states. 

If you know there is a chance of severe weather, you can tune into NOAA Weather Radio to hear when an advance warning is issued. Many survival radios have the seven NOAA Weather Stations pre-programmed for your convenience. 

Tornado warning

A Tornado Warning is more urgent. It is issued by the NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office meteorologists watching a designated area nonstop. It means that radar or spotters have picked up on an actual tornado that is threatening people or property. 

A Tornado Warning means that you are at risk of danger and need to seek an immediate storm shelter. A warning can include parts of counties or several counties. When in an area issued with a Tornado Warning be sure to watch for the tornado warning signs. 

The National Weather Service cannot always predict a tornado nor give much warning. That is why it is a good idea to be able to spot the warning signs of tornadoes yourself. Advance planning can also mean the difference between life and death. 

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to learn how to spot if you think a tornado is coming your way.

1. Wall cloud

You may see a wall cloud or the lowering of the base of the thunderstorm. Be especially cautious if the wall is rotating. 

2. Debris cloud

Even if a tornado is not visible look for a whirling dust or debris cloud near the ground which can indicate a tornado without a funnel. 

3. Large hail

Large hailwith the absence of rain can be an indicator of an impending tornado.

4. Heavy rain

When hail or heavy rain is followed by a quick, intense wind shift or a dead calm be watchful. This can indicate a thunderstorm as many times they are wrapped in precipitation and cannot be seen. 

5. Still weather

Many times before a tornado strikes, the wind speeds will die down producing a quiet, still air. Many report this as eerie silence. Others call it the “calm before the storm.”

6. Roaring noise

A tornado can produce a loud rumbling sound that is similar to the loud roar of a freight train. This can occur during the day or night. 

7. Funnel cloud

A rotating extension of the cloud base can signal the formation of a tornado.

8. Dark sky with greenish tint

The sky may appear dark and have a greenish hue.

9. Small and bright, blue-green flashes

At night, pay attention to small, bright, blue-green flashes near ground level. That could indicate power lines are being snapped by strong winds or a tornado. 

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you are caught in a tornado

Tip #1: When referring to tornado safety, your stationed RV is similar to a mobile home. It’s even less safe. If you are camping somewhere and find yourself at risk of a tornado get out if possible. 

Tip #2: While you do not want to be exposed outdoors you do want to try and find the safest place possible. The best places are underground shelters or sturdy, permanent buildings. 

Tip #3: If you are driving your RV or other vehicle and get caught near a tornado, it can also be dangerous. Your best-case scenario is to try and drive out of the tornado’s path. To do this, drive at a right angle to the tornado if at all possible. 

Tip #4: If you get caught in high winds or hit with flying debris, park the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible. Lower your head below the windows. Cover your head and hands with a blanket or coat. 

Tip #5: If you spot an area lower than the roadway, leave your vehicle and lie down in that area. Cover your head with your hands. 

Tip #6: If you are in the outdoors, try and locate some sort of storm shelter in a sturdy building. If that is not possible, lie down at the lowest level you can find.

Tip #7: Try to avoid trees and vehicles and cover your head with your arms. 

Tip #8: Invest in a Survival Radio before you leave on your next road trip whether heading toward Tornado Alley or not.

Tip #9: For more helpful information, refer to the NOAA’s Tornado Safety Guide.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do after

Once the tornado passes, assess the damage. Look and smell for a gas leak and move away if needed. 

If you can stay put and wait for medical personnel or law enforcement. Help any injured people that you can. 

If you haven’t already, turn on your radio and tune in to NOAA weather radio or local radio station. 

If you must drive out of the area, be careful to watch for any downed power lines. 

Worth Pondering…

Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building—banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded—a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2:40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.

―Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado

New Airborne Radar Could Be a Game-Changer for Forecasting Hurricanes

The start of June marks the start of hurricane season in the Atlantic

June 1 marks the start of the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season which extends through November 30. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) seasonal outlook predicts another active, yet near-normal Atlantic hurricane season with 12-17 named storms forecasted, 1-4 becoming major hurricanes. According to the National Hurricane Center, 2022 had only two major hurricanes but was considered one of the costliest seasons on record.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But experts have noted this season comes with a high level of uncertainty based on a developing El Niño and an unusually warm Atlantic Basin. Strong westerly winds spurred on by El Niño—a natural climate pattern marked by warmer-than-average Pacific Ocean water—tend to prevent nascent Atlantic storms from developing. This occurs because those increased upper-level winds can tear apart hurricanes as they try to form.

NOAA’s National Hurricane Center provides tropical storm and hurricane forecasts and warnings to help mitigate the impact of large storms. Recent technological advances have also helped the cause like the GOES-16 satellite. This satellite makes it possible to see hurricanes and other storms in their formative stages which help weather forecasters stay up to date.

The National Weather Service has invested substantially in supercomputing to gain three-fold processing power in turn reducing storm tracking and location error rates.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the capability to fly over severe weather and achieve high altitudes for up to 30 hours straight, intelligence gathered by Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk UAV has helped civilian authorities assess storm strength and direction and plan next steps for warnings and disaster relief. In partnership with NASA and NOAA, the Global Hawk UAV has been used to track hurricane intensification.

Next-generation radar technology capable of taking 3D slices of hurricanes and other storms is poised to move ahead after years of fits and starts.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the news: The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced $91.8 million in funding on June 1— the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season—for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to design, build, and test airborne phased array radar.

The technology consists of thousands of transmitters and receivers on horizontal plates mounted at different points on a plane.

Together, they would scan storms in unprecedented detail from storms’ overall organization to the type, shape, and direction of movement of droplets within the clouds.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why it matters: Currently, NOAA’s aging hurricane research aircraft fly tail-mounted Doppler radars into the heart of hurricanes. But the new APAR could yield significant insights into weather predictions and climate projections.

For example, it could provide a far more detailed picture of the inner structure of a hurricane. The data can then be fed into computer models to warn of sudden intensity changes and track shifts.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Context: Hurricanes are churning out more rainfall than they used to. The storms are more likely to rapidly intensify with several landfalling systems in recent years leaping multiple categories on the Saffir Simpson Scale in just 24 to 36 hours.

In September 2022, Hurricane Ian suddenly jumped from a Category 3 storm to almost a Category 5. It used to be rare for storms to keep strengthening until landfall let alone do so rapidly. Now it is not. Such an intensity leap was made possible by warm ocean temperatures and abundant atmospheric moisture.

During the past several years, there have been multiple storms that rapidly intensified as they neared the Gulf Coast and did so through landfall. Previously, tropical storms and hurricanes tended to weaken as they neared the northern Gulf Coast in particular falling victim to cooler waters or stronger jet stream winds.

But that did not happen with Hurricanes Laura or Ida in 2020 and 2021—or with Hurricane Michael which ramped all the way up to a Category 5 storm in the Florida Panhandle in 2018.

This technology may also be able to improve understanding of these weather phenomena.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zoom in: The funding will be used for a radar-outfitted C-130 research aircraft operated jointly by NSF and NCAR.

NCAR director Everette Joseph said the radar should be ready for use in 2028.

In addition to the NCAR research radar, NOAA is planning to buy a new fleet of C-130 hurricane hunters and outfit them with APAR units. It aims to have them flying in 2030.

The NSF investment does not cover NOAA’s new equipment though the oceans and atmosphere agency would benefit from NCAR’s research insights.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between the lines: In selecting NCAR for the funding and research, the NSF is following a long-established model with the Boulder, Colorado-based organization.

The partnership has helped advance weather and climate forecasting for decades.

However, NCAR has hit turbulence recently. Last week, NCAR and NSF announced a temporary suspension of flight operations at its research aviation facility at Rocky Mountain Municipal Airport which would be integrally involved in the APAR project.

An NSF spokesperson told Axios the reason for the stand-down was the “discovery of several lapses related to the safety management systems” at the facility.

“NCAR has done an initial analysis and does not expect any impacts on APAR from the safety stand-down at this time,” the spokesperson said.

Currently, a third-party review is taking place “to review NCAR’s aviation processes, culture, communication, and organizational structure,” the NSF said, projecting a return to full flight operations in the fall.

NCAR and the related University Corporation for Atmospheric Research are also trying to find more pilots in the wake of pandemic-related shutdowns and retirements, NSF stated.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What they’re saying: APAR has been a priority for storm researchers and forecasters for years but is only now poised for flight.

Scott Rayder, a former NOAA chief of staff who now leads Leidos’ climate, energy, and environment activities said such technological leaps should not take so long given that lives are at stake with severe storms.

“When I first heard about the technology in 2012 I knew APAR would be a game changer,” Rayder told Axios. “The fact that it took 10 years to get to this decision is a concern—we need to find ways to more rapidly develop technologies like APAR and move them into operations.”

Go deeper

Stay safe out there!

Worth Pondering…

In reality, you don’t ever change the hurricane. You just learn how to stay out of its path.     

—Jodi Picoult

Are You Prepared for the Next Great Weather Event?

Educate yourself ahead of time. Every type of extreme weather event presents a unique challenge.

We know that weather can either make or break a camping trip. Sunshine and blue skies are what make RV trips a fun experience but we can’t always be that fortunate. Every once in a while a storm or unexpected temperatures sneak up on us and we must be fully prepared for when nature is having an off day. Extreme weather is more dangerous when in an RV than in a house. Here are some severe weather tips for RVers for when the going gets tough.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most important thing to do is stay updated on the most current weather as much as possible to avoid surprises and prepare for any bad weather that may be on its way. Checking the weather before leaving on a road trip will provide some insight into what you may experience over the next several days.

As with any emergency, you want to be prepared ahead of time. Create an emergency plan for every situation and make sure your family knows the procedures. Write out the procedures and post them for future reference.

Seek shelter before the weather becomes extreme. No possession is worth more than you and your family. The worst thing to do is to wait around to determine the actions of others, wait for rescue, or wait until the last minute to know the severity of the weather event.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prepare an emergency supply kit and place it in a convenient location that is easy to access. Consider including the following items: whistles, extra blankets, rain ponchos, non-perishable packaged/canned food, can opener, flashlights, a flare gun, a first aid kit, necessary prescription drugs, a compass, pet supplies/food, and bottled water.

Know the county you are located in and the surrounding counties. When you hear a weather alert message on your smartphone, radio, or television you’ll be able to determine where the storm is located and how quickly it will approach your current location.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Weather Service (NWS) provide information on current conditions, incoming storms, and emergency radio station lists. Have an NOAA battery-operated alert radio with an automatic alert mode, smartphone charger, and several flashlights in your RV? Top-rated mobile weather apps include WeatherBug, AccuWeather, and The Weather Channel.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lightning and thunderstorms

According to NOAA, at any given moment in the day there are roughly 2,000 thunderstorms in progress across the globe. The United States experiences 100,000 thunderstorms every year with spring and summer afternoons seeing the highest frequency of events. Each storm can bring a suite of problems from hail to high winds but it’s lightning that is your number one concern.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Lightening kills more people annually than tornadoes or hurricanes
  • Taking shelter inside any building or vehicle is safer than being outside
  • Rain does not signify the beginning of a dangerous storm; thunder does
  • Anytime you hear thunder you’re at risk of a lightning strike; close your awning, store anything that can blow away, and get indoors as quickly as possible
  • Lightning strikes can damage the electrical power in your unit so it’s a good idea to use an Electric Management System (Progressive Industries or Surge Guard)

More on lightning/thunderstorms:

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flash floods

The severity and speed of flash floods make them one of the most harrowing weather events adventurers might encounter. They occur when excessive water fills normally a dry canyon or wash and when creeks and rivers rise rapidly from rainfall within their watershed.

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a creek that’s only six inches deep in the mountains can swell to a ten-foot-deep raging river in less than an hour if a thunderstorm lingers over an area for an extended period.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Do not attempt to cross any water higher than your ankles
  • As little as 6 inches of water flowing quickly can knock an adult down
  • Less than 2 feet of water can sweep a car away or stall it out with you stuck inside
  • You rarely have time to move your RV; get to higher ground and stay safe
  • TURN AROUND DON’T DROWN

More on flash floods: Flash Floods: Safety Tips for RVers

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dust storm

Dust storms (also called Haboobs) are unexpected, and unpredictable, and can sweep across the desert landscape at any time. Dust storms can reduce visibility to near zero in seconds resulting in deadly, multi-vehicle accidents on roadways. Dust storms can be miles long and thousands of feet high. 

Dust storms can occur anywhere in the United States but are most common in the Southwest. In Arizona, dust storms most frequently occur during monsoon season (June-September) but they can pop up at any time of the year. Drivers of high-profile recreation vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • DO NOT drive into or through a dust storm. PULL ASIDE. STAY ALIVE.
  • Do not stop in a travel lane or the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
  • Turn off all vehicle lights including your emergency flashers. You do not want other vehicles approaching from behind to use your lights as a guide possibly crashing into your parked vehicle.
  • Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake.
  • Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.
  • PULL OFF! LIGHTS OFF! FOOT OFF!

More on dust storms: Dust Storms and Haboobs: Safety Tips for RVers

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornados

Tornado Alley which stretches from mid-Texas north to North Dakota is plagued by a high frequency of tornadoes. But the disastrous storms aren’t just relegated to the plains. Tornadoes can happen anywhere. While tornadoes can form quickly—on average, NOAA releases a tornado warning in the potential impact area 15 minutes before the tornado hits—most are born from thunderstorms.

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • When you register at an RV campground, ask about the tornado and storm warning systems for the area
  • Never try to outrun a tornado in any type of vehicle
  • RVs do not provide good protection during a tornado
  • Be ready to go when a tornado WATCH is issued

More on tornadoes: Severe Weather: Tornado Safety Tips for RVers

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extreme Heat

Extreme heat poses a threat to young children, older adults, and anyone who doesn’t take the right safety precautions before and during a heat wave. Heat-related incidents can be prevented with a few measures to ensure that both you and your family can safely get through the heat wave.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke need to be taken seriously. If you feel like you’re becoming dizzy, weak, or nauseous after spending time in the sun, take care of yourself as soon as possible. These conditions can quickly get worse if you ignore them. 

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Limit your exposure to the sun
  • Stay hydrated by drinking at least 16 ounces of water every hour in the heat to replenish your body and prevent dehydration
  • Wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing; a wide-brimmed hat, correct shoes, sunscreen, and wet bandanas to keep you cool while in the sun
  • Be aware of the heat and humidity index (a relative humidity of 60 percent or higher makes it hard for sweat to evaporate off your body)

More on extreme heat:

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hurricane

The devastating power of hurricanes can change your life, or even end it, in seconds. An RV is not a safe place to ride out a hurricane. Hurricanes pack enough punch to destroy everything in their wake and in those times it is best to be prepared for an immediate evacuation. Your RV can become your best friend and your ticket to safety if you take certain safety measures for yourself and your vehicle.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • As soon as you know a hurricane is likely to come your way, load up your RV and head out before the Interstate becomes a virtual parking lot
  • Get as far from the coast and bodies of water as you can

More on hurricanes:

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildfires

Wildfires are highly unpredictable and can be deadly. With the severe heat, drought conditions, and wildfires burning across much of the western US states and Canada, those who are out adventuring need to be aware of wildfire conditions and what can be done to keep you and your family safe.

Over time, wildfires have become more prevalent. The changing climate makes droughts more frequent, generates more wind (which whips and spreads the flames) and leaves areas more susceptible to wildfires or the more dangerous and larger-scale mega-fires.

The peak month of wildfire season is August when areas become increasingly dry, hot, and more susceptible to wildfire. The states with the highest number of wildfires are California, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Oregon.

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Know the current wildfire conditions and fire restrictions for the area you are traveling
  • Choose a campsite that has more than one escape route
  • If you do see an unattended fire or out of control fire, contact the authorities by calling 911 or the Forest Service immediately
  • If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately

More on wildfires: Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blizzards/Snowstorms

The best advice is to stay off the road, sit tight, and wait the weather out. Risking your life or the life of your family is not worth it for a road trip. Keep snow tires/chains, extra blankets, and extra food and water. Check to ensure you have a full tank of fuel (which also helps to add additional weight), and check for correct tire pressure (low tire pressure increases the chance of hydroplaning).

Be prepared for severe weather © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key points to keep in mind include:

  • Secure everything outside that has even the slightest potential to blow away
  • Keep a pair of thick gloves and a toque with you
  • Wearing multiple layers of light clothing will keep you warmer than one heavy layer

More on blizzards/snowstorms: Handling Cold Weather in Your RV

Worth Pondering…

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)