Alley oops? Grad student's research challenges location of 'Tornado Alley'


Michael Frates, The University of Akron

Michael Frates explains how strong tornadoes occur in greater frequency in regions outside of the area of the Midwest known as "Tornado Alley." Frates' poster depicting his findings is lower on this page.

Leave it to a budding University of Akron researcher long fascinated by tornadoes and atmospheric phenomena to redefine Tornado Alley. The colloquial term, used to describe the U.S. region most frequented by intense tornadoes, has new meaning thanks to Michael Frates.

According to Frates, who recently graduated with a master’s degree from the UA Department of Geography and Planning, Tornado Alley might best encompass four regions, not exclusively the area between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains traditionally described as such.

Frates presented his findings at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in Washington, D.C. last month. Ever since, the looming winds of change reveal that Dixie Alley, Tornado Alley, Hoosier Alley and Carolina Alley collectively, represent a true Tornado Alley.

In his study of the spatial distribution of dangerous tornadoes — ranked F3, F4 or F5 — according to intensity, Frates discovered that such tornadoes occur most often in Dixie Alley, which spans from eastern Texas across parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama into northeast Georgia. Tornado Alley, an area of the Central United States that experiences a high frequency of tornadoes, follows closely behind.

Video from Cleveland's WKYC

Frates examined the distribution of tornadoes with tracks greater than 20 miles, which occurred between 1950 and 2006 over the geographic area incorporating all four regions. Frates reviewed this entire area as a grid of 3,068 cells, each representing 1,082 square miles. By studying these area units of equivalent dimension, Frates was able to study the area as a whole divided into equal parts — not as individual regions of varying size marked by traditional boundaries such as county and state lines — and ultimately, present these breakthrough findings.

Reports of Frates’ research results by major news organizations such as MSNBC (see article), The Washington Post (see article), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (see article), Discovery News (see article) and Science News (see article) have stirred so much interest that weather reports forecasting tornadoes may never again look or sound the same.

Poster depicting Frates' research

Frates' poster

Download larger version of the poster as a PDF.

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