Apr 18, 2023 - Climate

What recent tornado trends mean for Central Ohio

Illustration of an hourglass with a tornado and lightning in the top portion

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

When most people think of tornadoes, Central Ohio doesn't typically come to mind — at least not yet.

Driving the news: A staggering 410 tornadoes were reported in the U.S. from January to March 2023, per the National Weather Service's preliminary count. That's the most recorded since tracking began in 1950, the second highest was 398 in 2017.

Why it matters: Ohio's number of tornadoes has tripled in 2023, from six during the first three-and-a-half months of 2022 to 19 so far this year, according to preliminary National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data.

  • Our area experiences extreme windstorms, which means it's also "at risk" for a destructive tornado, especially given recent trends, Aaron Wilson, an atmospheric scientist at Ohio State University, tells us.

The latest: Research has shown a shift eastward in frequency from the part of the country traditionally known as "tornado alley," which includes parts of Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

  • Several damaging EF3s — with wind speeds ranging from 136 to 165 mph — touched down this month in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Delaware.

What they're saying: Jana Houser, associate professor of meteorology at OSU, tells Axios the biggest surprise is how far north and east they're occurring, and how early in the year.

  • "Usually, we'll see this kind of tornado frequency in our area in June and July, or even closer to fall," she says.

Zoom in: So far this year, tornadoes have mostly occurred in western and southwestern Ohio, but a pair did sweep through Fairfield County on April 5.

Flashback: Since 1954, 34 have touched down in or around Franklin County, according to NOAA.

  • The two most recent were in 2018, in Grove City in April and in Olde Towne East and Bexley in September. Nobody was injured, but many properties were damaged.
  • The last major tornado was in 1973 southwest of the airport. It caused $2.3 million in damage to the Defense Supply Center, collapsed a factory roof and hit seven warehouses.
  • The Dayton area suffered a deadly tornado outbreak in 2019.

The bottom line: "While the risk may not be great, there's definitely still a risk," Houser says, "especially with the atmospheric instability we've seen this year."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the last major tornado in Columbus occurred in 1973 (not 1974) and to remove a reference to how strong it was on the EF scale, which did not exist then.


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