This year may set records for tornadoes and tornado-related deaths. "We have already seen more than 115 tornado-related deaths, making this the deadliest tornado season since 1998," said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK.

Tornado in Kansas
©Chris Foltz, NOAA
Tornado in Kansas on May 22, 2008.

"It is only the third time since the 1974 super tornado outbreak that there have been more than 100 tornado-related deaths during a single tornado season in the U.S.," added Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory also in Norman. "In 1998 and 1984 there were 132 and 122 tornado-related deaths, respectively - 2008 will likely equal or exceed that record."

Recent years averaged about 1,200 tornadoes and 60 tornado-related deaths reported annually across the United States. Most tornadoes occur from late winter to mid-summer, mostly in the Southeast in the early part of the season, followed by the Midwestern and Plains states in the later part of the season.

So why has this tornado season been so active? Meteorologists at NOAA's Storm Prediction Center say this winter's and early spring's unusually turbulent weather may be to blame.

"The storm track over the last three months was very active across the Rockies and into the East Coast. This active storm track lends itself to more severe weather events, including tornadoes," said Carbin. "In previous years, major storms happened every week or so, but we have had a major storm system affecting some part of the U.S. every three to four days through early spring."

"Another contributing factor is this year's early start to the season. A total of 87 tornadoes struck the Tennessee valley and Midwest over a 24 hour period starting on Feb. 5, resulting in a total of 56 deaths," said Carbin. "This storm ranks as number 15 in terms of the number of fatalities since 1950. February will likely turn out to be a record setting month once all the tornado reports have been verified."

The tornadoes this season are also touching down in highly populated areas, thus increasing both the number of fatalities and the number of eyewitness reports of each tornado.

The strong start to the tornado season should serve as a reminder to us all that tornadoes can strike anywhere at any time. The best defense is to monitor the news and listen to NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards for the latest weather updates. Be prepared to move to safety if weather conditions become threatening.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Adapted from materials provided by National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration.