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The best times and places to see tornadoes, using storm observing stats

USA Tornado Observing Regions

By DAN ROBINSON
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I'm often asked the questions of how many tornadoes I've seen, and how difficult they are to see. Another common question involves the best times and places to see a tornado. I'm a stats/numbers type person, so I have always kept data on the tornadoes I've witnessed over the years. I thought it might be a fun exercise to break that data down into tables by state, region, year and month to show what dates and locations have been the most productive in terms of easily-observable tornadoes. (This article's stats are updated at regular intervals - last update was June 2, 2022.)

The short answer: The best time of year to attempt to see a tornado is during the month of May. The state of Kansas produces both the highest number total tornadoes and the most visually-spectacular tornadoes for the storm observer actively going out to attempt to see one.

As for personal stats, as of today I've seen 152 tornadoes. I've averaged seeing a tornado on one out of a little more than every four tornado attempt days. On average, one out of every 5 tornadoes I see is "photogenic" (well-developed with good lighting and contrast). Some years have been better than that, others were worse (some I saw zero tornadoes!). On average, I put in around 12 tornado "attempt" days per year (not including travel days). From the time I decided to start pursuing tornadoes in 2001, it took me three years of active storm observing before I gained enough knowledge and skill to start seeing tornadoes.

The long answer: Below are tables breaking down tornado days by region, month, state and year. For the purpose of this data set, I'm not counting my numerous other outings for lightning, flooding, winter storms or general storm structure (those total in the dozens per year). This data also shows the average number of days one must go out to see a tornado in different regions of the USA and at different times of year.

Before I get into the tables, here is how I define the metrics and data categories:

  • USA Tornado Observing Regions: For the purposes of this post, I'm only highlighting regions where you have multiple realistic chances to see a tornado each year, if you are able to observe storms when the conditions come together. This map plots what I consider to be the USA's four viable tornado-observing regions:
USA Tornado Observing Regions

  • Tornado Attempt Days: For the purposes of this data set, I consider a Tornado Attempt Day to be one where there was tornado potential, and therefore my storm observation objective/strategy was tornado-driven. I strategize and execute a storm observation day differently depending on what I expect storms to do, that is, I don't count my numerous lightning photography/shelf cloud/flooding outings to be 'tornado attempt days' unless tornado potential materializes at some point during the outing. As such, this data more accurately reflects my attempt-to-bust ratio when it comes to tornadoes only.
     
  • Tornado Days: These are defined as storm observation days where a tornado is seen, regardless of the number of tornadoes captured on that day.
     
  • Success rate: This is the percentage of tornado attempt days that result in a tornado day. Again, for this calculation, each tornado day is counted only once, regardless of the number of tornadoes seen on that day.
     
  • Photogenic Tornadoes: This is a highly subjective metric, but one that I thought would be useful to include. That is, how much do you have to go out to see a "quality" event? For the purposes here, I define "photogenic" as a tornado that:
     
    1. has very little rain wrapping (or at least not enough to significantly impact visibility and contrast)
       
    2. is well-developed, that is, has a more or less "complete" structure with a continuous funnel and/or debris cloud from ground to cloud base
       
    3. lasts reasonably long enough to capture well-composed images and video, and
       
    4. occurs during bright daylight hours, resulting in pleasing lighting and contrast.

    The header image at the top of this article is a sampling of what I consider to be photogenic tornadoes.

Annual Averages

Great Plains averages are calculated beginning in 2001. Midwest averages are calculated beginning in 2010, the year I moved to and began regularly storm observing in that region.

Metric Overall
Average
Great Plains
Average
Midwest
Average
Tornadoes 7.2/year 5.4/year 3.2/year
Photogenic Tornadoes 1.7/year 1.9/year Every 2.4 years
Tornado Attempt Days 12.4/year 6.1/year 10.6/year
Tornado Days 3/year 1.9/year 1.9/year
Tornadoes Per Tornado Day 2.4 2.9 1.2
Tornado Attempt Mileage 7,580.9/year

Tornadoes by Region - Leader: Great Plains

The Great Plains in the spring is by far the most 'bang for your buck' in terms of the probability that you'll see a tornado on any given storm observation day. Overall, it takes twice as many storm observation days to see a tornado in the Midwest than the Great Plains, but each Midwest attempt tends to involve half of the mileage of a typical Great Plains trip. All but 3 of the Midwestern tornadoes I've seen occured less than 2 hours from home!

*37 of the 38 Midwest tornadoes were captured since 2010 (after I moved to the St. Louis metro area), and 31 of those 38 were captured in the state of Illinois.

Region Tornado
Attempt Days
Tornado
Days
Tornadoes Photogenic
Tornadoes
Success
Rate
%
Photogenic
Great Plains 133 40 114 30 30.1% 26.3%
Midwest 135 23 38* 5 17.0% 16.1%
South 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
East 4 0 0 0 0% 0%
Total 273 63 152 35 23.1% 23%

Tornadoes by Month - Leader: May

Of course, spring is the dominant season for severe storms, with May predictably on top for total tornadoes and the most photogenic tornadoes. Of note is the fact that I have had at least one tornado storm observation day in every month of the year, a consequence of living in the Midwest where many events are scattered throughout the entire year. All of my top 5 tornado intercepts have occurred in May.

Month Tornado
Attempt Days
Tornado
Days
Tornadoes Photogenic
Tornadoes
Success
Rate
%
Photogenic
January 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
February 4 2 3 1 50% 33.3%
March 12 1 1 0 8.3% 0%
April 40 7 19 4 17.5% 21.1%
May 86 35 81 20 40.1% 25%
June 28 13 33 7 46.4% 21.2%
July 7 3 5 0 42.9% 0%
August 1 0 0 0 0% 0%
September 3 2 2 1 66.7% 50%
October 3 1 1 0 33.3% 0%
November 5 1 1 0 20.0% 0%
December 3 2 5 2 66.7% 40%
All 273 63 152 35 23.1% 23%

Tornadoes by State - Leader: Kansas

The leader in this category is no surprise: Kansas is the best state to spend time and money trying to see tornadoes in, with the greatest number of tornadoes, most photogenic tornadoes and best overall success rate. But on this list, Illinois is catching up - in 2021, IL passed Oklahoma to gain second place for total tornado sightings. Also of note here is the surprising difficulty I've had seeing tornadoes in Missouri, despite a high number of tornado attempt days there (ranked number 3 in that category!). Part of this is due to the road network and terrain, but it's mostly because storms over there have simply not been very productive like they have in the states on either side.

I didn't include mileage in this category, as expedition days frequently involve multiple states. Trying to go back through each individual storm observation day to break all of those numbers down by state would be too time-consuming a task for this purpose.

State Tornado
Attempt Days
Tornado
Days
Tornadoes Photogenic
Tornadoes
Success
Rate
%
Photogenic
Kansas 35 14 46 14 40% 30.4%
Illinois 75 19 31 4 25.3% 12.9%
Oklahoma 43 8 25 5 18.6% 20.0%
Texas 21 8 18 4 38.1% 22.2%
Nebraska 12 6 10 4 50% 40%
Colorado 7 4 8 3 57.1% 37.5%
Missouri 42 5 7 0 11.9% 0%
Wyoming 1 1 2 1 100% 50%
Iowa 3 1 1 0 33.3% 0%
South Dakota 2 1 1 0 50.0% 0%
Kentucky 7 0 0 0 0% 0%
Indiana 5 0 0 0 0% 0%
Ohio 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
Tennessee 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
Arkansas 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
North Carolina 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
West Virginia 2 0 0 0 0% 0%
Alabama 1 0 0 0 0% 0%
Louisiana 1 0 0 0 0% 0%
North Dakota 1 0 0 0 0% 0%
All 273 63 152 35 23.1% 23%

Tornadoes by Year - Leader: 2016

This table only goes back to 2001, since that was the first year I expanded from just covering lightning to pursuing tornadoes and supercells. Prior to that, I was going out strictly for lightning photography.

*My 2020 spring tornado season was mostly shut down due to the pandemic. COVID travel restrictions in Illinois from March 23 to May 29 prevented me from leaving the St. Louis metro area during the peak of severe weather season.

**Mileage shown is for tornado attempts only (this figure does not include mileage traveled for other weather phenomena such as winter storms, hurricanes, lightning and floods).

Year Tornado
Attempt Days
Tornado
Days
Tornadoes Photogenic
Tornadoes
Success
Rate
%
Photogenic
Mileage** Avg. Miles
per Tornado
2001 4 0 0 0 0% 0% 4,178 -
2002 5 0 0 0 0% 0% 3,983 -
2003 10 0 0 0 0% 0% 11,136 -
2004 13 6 12 4 46.2% 33.3%
2005 8 3 14 2 37.5% 14.3% 11,893 849.5
2006 6 1 1 0 16.7% 0% 8,065 8,065
2007 6 3 15 0 50% 0% 10,243 682.9
2008 6 2 4 0 33.3% 0% 4,962 1,240.5
2009 7 0 0 0 0% 0% 5,249 -
2010 15 3 6 0 20% 0% 7,837 1,306.2
2011 10 2 2 1 20% 50% 4,247 2,123.5
2012 12 3 11 5 25% 45.5% 7,244 658.5
2013 22 6 12 4 27.3% 33.3% 9,189 765.8
2014 10 6 10 1 60.0% 10% 9,709 970.9
2015 14 4 6 0 28.6% 0% 9,725 1,620.8
2016 11 4 17 5 36.4% 29.4% 6,741 396.5
2017 11 5 9 4 45.5% 44.4% 6,439 715.4
2018 15 4 11 3 26.7% 27.2% 10,654 968.5
2019 24 5 8 3 20.8% 37.5% 13,674 1,709.3
2020* 8 0 0 0 0% 0% 1,945 -
2021 17 6 12 2 35.3% 16.7% 10,305 858.8
2022 10 1 1 0 10% 0% 6,083 6,083
All 273 63 152 35 23.1% 23% 163,501 1,075.7

I'd be interested to hear if your tornado day to tornado storm observation day rates are similar to mine.

Wow! Great stats. My last 3 years as follows: Event Days. Tornado Days. Tornadoes. Success 2011. 5. 1. 3. 20% 2012. 1. 0. 0. 0% 2013. 7. 5. 8. 62.5%
- Posted by Clarence from Nashville, Tn

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