[Recently] parts of the southern United States experienced tornadic storms that left a path of destruction. The campus of Jacksonville State University in eastern Alabama sustained major damage from tornadic storms and a damaging EF-2 tornado tore through a subdivision only miles from the world’s busiest airport. Much of this activity happened at night. In the Atlanta area, a tornado watch was issued until 4 am [that] Tuesday morning. My alert level was immediately elevated. There is an old saying that storms can be “good sleeping weather.” I understand the logic of that statement, and a quick Internet search reveals a non-trivial share of “storm” apps or recordings to aid with sleeping. However, I know that nocturnal tornadic storms can be particularly dangerous. I am guessing that some people, though under a tornado watch, declared it “good sleeping weather” and turned in for the evening. Here is why that may not be such a great idea without a plan.
Photo Courtesy: FEMA
While nocturnal thunderstorms are most common in the Plains regions during June and July, they can certainly happen at any time and in much of the eastern United States. A 2008 study from Northern Illinois University found that while only 27% of tornadoes happened at night, 39% of tornado fatalities were nocturnal. They also found that 42% of “killer” tornadoes were nocturnal. The authors noted that winter and spring-transition seasons (November to April) had the highest fatality rates from nocturnal storms. This is surprising since those are not necessarily the peak months for tornadoes. The authors told Science Daily that fewer daylight hours and public underestimation of “preseason” storms may be factors. The study, published in the American Meteorological Society’s journal Weather and Forecasting, also found that one of the reasons tornadoes occurring during the period from midnight to sunrise are 2.5 times more deadly is related to geography. Nocturnal tornadic storms take a particular toll on vulnerable populations and housing structures in the American South.
Photo Courtesy: Walker Ashley/ NIU and AMS
I am usually up if there is severe weather expected overnight. For me, there is something particularly unsettling about sleeping when there is a threat of tornado or the pounding of hailstones in the darkness of night (or a power outage). This is exactly what people in Georgia and Alabama experienced [that] week [in March]. Professor Howard Bluestein is a professor at the University of Oklahoma. He points out that “all thunderstorms produce dangerous lightning, both during the day and at night. Storms that form at night are likely to produce hail, damaging winds and flooding rain. Tornadoes, however, are much more likely during the day, especially during the late afternoon and early evening, not at night.” Bluestein made these statements in a 2015 National Science Foundation press release describing the Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN) project. He was the principal investigator of this experiment designed to better understand nocturnal storms. When asked what the public should do to prepare for nocturnal storms, Bluestein mentioned several good strategies:
- Place cars under shelters or in garages to prevent damage from hail or falling branches.
- Ensure that electronics plugged into walls are protected from power surges (or just unplug them).
- If in an area prone to flooding, have an evacuation plan.
- Secure things outside of the ouse that may be lofted by strong winds.
- Have a NOAA weather radio with an active alarm sound or a cellphone with alerting capacity.
Most cellphones are now equipped with the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. According to the National Weather Service website, “Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are emergency messages sent by authorized government alerting authorities through your mobile carrier. Government partners include local and state public safety agencies, FEMA, the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Weather Service. No signup is required! Alerts are sent automatically to WEA-capable phones during an emergency.”
The nice thing about WEA is that alerts can be sent without downloading an external app or subscriptions. WEA will provide weather warnings, AMBER alerts, local evacuation or actions emergencies, or Presidential alerts if there is a national emergency. However, it is important to make sure that you have not disabled your WEA because you were tired of getting alerts. I also prefer to use an app like “ReadyGA” as a redundant alert system. FEMA has a good app with similar functionality also. By the way, I should also mention that tornado sirens should not be seen as the answer. They are useful if you are outdoors and hear them (but what if you are not or don’t?).
We are often most disconnected from information, other people, and situational awareness when we are in the comfort of our homes at night. This makes the threat of a nocturnal tornado very dangerous. I wrote this piece not from a “soap box” narrative but to help save future lives.