Tornadoes in North Carolina: When and where do they occur?

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North Carolina is no stranger to tornadoes and the damage they bring. We have seen tornadoes develop from strong cold fronts, tropical systems, and everything in between.

The frequency and intensity of tornadoes varies across our state, but most tend to occur in eastern North Carolina.

Corey Davis is the Assistant State Climatologist for North Carolina. He says that I-95 tends to be the dividing line for activity.

“One of the main reasons for that is because fall is a transitional season. We’re seeing cold air move in from the north while we’ve still got warm air to the south, and often that warm and moist air moves just far enough inland, so those eastern parts of North Carolina, really right along and east of I-95, tend to have all those ingredients come in place for severe weather.”

According to the North Carolina State Climate Office, from 1950 to 2019, North Carolina saw a total of 1,387 tornadoes. On average, we see 29 tornadoes a year.

The majority of the tornadoes in North Carolina have been on the lower end of the previously used Fujita Scale (F Scale) or the current Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF Scale).

April and May are the months with the most tornadic activity in North Carolina. We also see a secondary peak in the fall from August to October. While strong cold fronts and low pressure systems are the triggers in the spring, Davis says another cause leads to the fall spike.

“That’s largely due to tropical systems. A lot of times in the outer rain bands of hurricanes that move through, we’ll see tornadoes. Floyd in particular, back in 1999, spawned something like sixteen tornadoes, which is one of the biggest outbreaks across the state.”

Davis also emphasized that late October and early November can also resemble a spring-like pattern.

“We’ll see these cold fronts where you’ve got very cold air to the north and west and warm air to the south and east. Along the boundary where that cold and warm air converges, especially along a cold front, we can see severe weather events.”

Of the 1,387 tornadoes recorded, 596 (43%) were F/EF-0 with 38.5% rated F/EF-1. A tornado that was a F/EF-3 or F/EF-4 was only 3.5% of the reported tornadoes.

Although most are “weaker” tornadoes, North Carolina has seen strong tornadoes as well.

In November 1988, Raleigh had one of the worst tornadoes on record. The F4 killed four people and injured more than 150 others.  

While the strongest tornadoes grab the headlines, Davis reminds North Carolinians that any tornado poses a threat.

“We don’t have to have an EF-4 for that type of damage. Any type of tornado is capable of producing damage. Strong enough to rip roofs off a house or knock trees over. So if you’re in an area that’s under a Tornado Warning, definitely take that threat seriously,” states Davis.

It is also important to understand the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning.

A Tornado Watch means conditions are favorable for a tornado to possibly develop. This does not mean a tornado has been spotted. Watches typically cover a larger area and are in effect for a longer period of time.

A Tornado Warning is issued when a tornado funnel has either been spotted or indicated by radar. A warning means you need to seek shelter immediately. Warnings cover a shorter period of time and are for specific areas.

Be sure to take some time and make sure your family knows where to go before the next Tornado Warning is issued.

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