Study: Number of tornadoes in Arkansas dropping

Ty Thompson
Press Argus-Courier
Stills from the Arkansas Department of Transportation video that appears to show a tornado moving through Jonesboro on Saturday, March 28, 2020. While a QuoteWizard.com study shows a decrease in Arkansas over the past 10 years compared to the 10 years prior, there has been an increase in tornadoes in Sebastian and Crawford counties.

Arkansas as a whole has seen 20% fewer tornadoes in the last 10 years. Sebastian and Crawford counties are the opposite with tornado increases for both.

While the tornadoes have not grown in strength for Sebastian County, they have grown in occurrence. Crawford County, however, has seen a 600% increase in tornadoes over the past decade. And they have grown stronger.

According to a study done by QuoteWizard.com, Arkansas had 413 tornadoes from 2000 to 2009. From 2010 to 2019 that number decreased to 330. 

Overall, the state may have seen a lower number of tornadoes throughout the last decade, but the statistics for Sebastian and Crawford Counties tell a different story. 

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sebastian County only had three tornadoes from 2000 to 2009. That number increased by 233% the following decade with 10 tornadoes from 2010 to 2019.

The most active years for Sebastian County were 2018 and 2019. The year 2018 alone saw three tornadoes followed by four tornadoes in 2019.

With the exception of one, all of these tornadoes were EF1. A tornado that started in Enterprise, Oklahoma, and moved into Sebastian County during the 2018 tornado season was recorded as an EF0. There is no increase in the strength of Sebastian County tornadoes throughout the two decades.

In Crawford County, there were only two tornadoes for the first decade of the new millennium. Those were in 2004 and 2007. With a 600% increase, that number rose to 14 in the following decade. The tornadoes also grew stronger.

Crawford County had four EF2 tornadoes in 2013, 2016, and 2018. These four tornadoes are different for the area as they are stronger than all of the tornadoes within the last 20 years.

On May 3, 2021, three tornadoes appeared in Crawford and Sebastian County leaving damage to trees, homes, and the roof of the Crawford County Courthouse. 

These three tornadoes were all classified EF1 and reached speeds of 100 to 110 mph. The largest of these began in Moffet and moved through Van Buren into central Crawford County. This tornado had a maximum width of 1.25 miles and its path stretched for 28 miles.

According to NOAA, 77% of tornadoes are either EF1 or EF0. About 95% are below EF3.

EF0 tornadoes reach wind speeds of 72 mph with damage to tree branches and signs. An EF1 tornado is the beginning of hurricane wind speeds that can peel surfaces off of roofs, push mobile homes off their foundations, and push moving vehicles off the road with wind speeds up to 112 mph. 

The more uncommon tornadoes register at EF3, EF4, and EF5. EF3s reach speeds of 206 mph and can overturn trains and uproot otherwise healthy trees in their path. EF4 level tornadoes can level homes and lift and carry cars with speeds up to 260 mph. 

Finally, an EF5 is the most dangerous tornado with wind speeds upwards of 318 mph. EF5s can lift homes off foundations and carry them before they are disintegrated. Trees are debarked and steel re-inforced buildings are badly damaged.

Some years don't even see any tornadoes. Tornadoes are most active when a La Niña weather pattern is active.

A La Niña pattern occurs in the Pacific Ocean when sea-surface temperatures are cooler than average. Typically with La Niña in place, the southern U.S. has above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation.

High winds caused by La Niña weather are instrumental in creating tornadoes by causing the wind to tumble or roll near the ground.

According to the National Weather Service, three of the four most active years in Arkansas for tornadoes were present during a La Niña pattern: 1999, 2008, and 2011.

2011 was a record year for Arkansas with 75 tornadoes, and three of them were in Crawford County. 

Tornado frequency is increasing in southeastern states but decreasing in Texas. Overall numbers of tornadoes in Arkansas have decreased about 20% in the past decade, with increases in certain areas like the Arkansas River Valley.

According to a report from USA Today, Tornado Alley may be shifting eastwards into a new area being referred to as "Dixie Alley."

Texas and Oklahoma are still  No. 1 when it comes to tornado activity, but they have  experienced a downward trend. Dixie Alley – portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky –  is catching up. 

"As far as the trend southeast, there has definitely been a noticeable trend," Zachary Hall, an Arkansas storm tracker from Greenwood said. "Especially with stronger tornadoes."

Steven Piltz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Tulsa, said it is too early to tell whether this increase in tornado activity is a trend for the area or not. 

However, Piltz referenced a study that shows there is an increase in the River Valley for tornado potential.

"Looking at their map for trends in tornado reports has a local max in west-central Arkansas," Piltz said.

According to the data, Piltz said there are years with tornadoes and a few years that see no tornado activity at all.

"You can see it is very much an up-and-down statistic, with several years in a row of no tornadoes, and several years in a row with tornadoes," Piltz explained.

At this point, the reasoning for the increase is inconclusive until more data is able to be studied over time. 

National Weather Service statistics show the number of tornadoes in Arkansas since 1950. While the overall number of tornadoes has decreased across Arkansas in the past decade, they have increased in the Arkansas River Valley area of Sebastian and Crawford counties.