Tornado Alley could really live up to its name this year, weather officials warn — and it may begin in a matter of days. Computer forecasting models are suggesting a weather pattern particularly conducive to producing thunderstorms — and, by extension, tornadoes — will settle into place later this week. The jet stream swoops deep into the southwestern U.S. and then swirls northeast into the Great Plains.
"That is more or less a classic severe-weather setup," said Mike Smith, founder and president of WeatherData, a subsidiary of AccuWeather. "We never saw this particular pattern the entirety of last year.
"I think we are setting ourselves up for a longer-than-average tornado season this year."
Severe Weather Awareness Week in Kansas is March 7 to 11. Last year the state recorded no tornadoes in March.
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Now, Smith said, is when families should make sure their place of shelter against severe weather is available for use; batteries in flashlights, radios and portable televisions are fresh; and first aid and survival kits are ready.
"Make sure you and your child understand what you're going to do in case there is a tornado warning," he said. "If the sirens go off, do you want your child to stay at school and sheltered?
"The time to figure that out is not when the tornado sirens are going off."
Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said he's not ready to say this will be a busier tornado season than normal.
Kansas averaged 60 tornadoes a year from 1950 to 2010, 77 a year from 1980 to 2010, and 96 a year from 1990 to 2010.
With swarms of storm chasers prowling near any storm with potential — as well as extensive spotter networks in place — even weak, short-lived tornadoes are being reported.
Still, he said, upper levels of the atmosphere are already starting to warm in parts of Mexico and the Southwest. "You're starting to see one of those ingredients that are necessary for vigorous storms," Carbin said.
Weather officials are keeping a close eye on the water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, said Bob Smerbeck, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com.
Those temperatures are below normal, which reduces the moisture flowing into the Great Plains and feeding storms. "The moisture supply is the trump card," Smerbeck said.
National Weather Service officials in Wichita said they aren't going to try to predict how busy this tornado season may be. Kansas had 88 tornadoes reported last year, 11 more than the 30-year average of 77.
"But if you stopped people on the street, most would say it was a slow year," Dick Elder, meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita weather service office, said in an e-mail.
That's because the tornadoes did not hit a town and caused no deaths or injuries.