Weather

Does Kansas have a ‘mini Tornado Alley’?

A massive tornado strikes near the town of Rozel on May 18, 2013.
A massive tornado strikes near the town of Rozel on May 18, 2013. Courtesy of Darin Brunin, Shalyn Phillips and Dick McGowan

America doesn’t just have Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley.

It turns out those geographic areas of increased tornado activity have hot spots of their own – miniature tornado alleys, if you will.

Speaking at the national storm chasers’ convention in Denver last month, Greg Forbes, severe weather expert at the Weather Channel, said tornado hot spots in Colorado, Arkansas and Georgia all had one feature in common: They were on the edge of terrain lifting into mountains.

Oklahoma has a “mini Tornado Alley” stretching northeast from Lawton to the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, AccuWeather senior vice president Mike Smith said. Lawton is near the Wichita Mountains, and Smith said that may well have something to do with why so many tornadoes form in the area.

But what about Kansas? While the Sunflower State is synonymous with tornadoes, it’s a topographical pancake bereft of mountain ranges.

Weather experts disagree over whether there’s a mini Tornado Alley in Kansas.

“As far as I know, there isn’t one in Kansas,” Smith said.

“Not that I’m aware of,” chimed in noted weather researcher and storm chaser Jon Davies.

But Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service, points to a zone in central Kansas stretching from Clark, Barber and Comanche counties along the Oklahoma state line north through Kiowa and Hodgeman counties and curling northeast through Pawnee and Barton counties.

“This is purely subjective,” Ruthi said.

Yet so many storm systems seem to form next to the Red – or Gypsum – Hills in southern Kansas and then track north-northeast, spawning tornadoes along the way, he said. The most notable recent example was the cycling supercell thunderstorm that produced several large tornadoes on May 4, 2007. Those included the EF5 that obliterated Greensburg.

Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the weather service, called that same area “a proactive region” for tornadoes, noting that Barton County now trails only Sherman County in northwest Kansas for most tornadoes in the state.

“That could lend some credence” to labeling the central Kansas corridor a tornado hot spot, Hayes said.

While the elevation difference between the Red Hills and the surrounding terrain may only be 200 or 300 feet, Ruthi said, that may be enough to be something of a magnet for storm generation.

There are two other areas in Kansas that catch Hayes’ attention when it comes to tornadoes: Sumner and Harper counties south of Wichita, and southeast Kansas along the Oklahoma state line.

Agricultural components factor into why Sumner and Harper counties are fertile breeding grounds for tornadoes, Hayes said.

When wheat is drying out leading up to harvest in June, he said, “that puts more moisture into the atmosphere.” Fronts interact with that added moisture to spawn thunderstorms.

Explanations for why southeast Kansas along the Oklahoma state line has been so active in recent years are more elusive. Severe weather “likes to migrate into that region quite frequently,” Hayes said.

Then again, every county in Kansas has had at least 10 tornadoes since records began being kept in 1950, which is why officials urge residents to take advantage of Tuesday’s statewide tornado drill to review their action plans should tornadoes threaten when they’re at home, work or school.

The statewide drill, part of Severe Weather Awareness Week, will be at 1:30 p.m.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

Severe Awareness Weather Week

▪ Statewide tornado drill Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

▪ Interested in taking a storm spotter training session? The National Weather Service in Wichita offers classes around Kansas. Go to www.crh.noaa.gov/ict/?n=spottertalks for a list of classes.

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