Image: Joplin tornado aftermath
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
A destroyed apartment complex is seen in Joplin, Mo., May 24, 2011. The large tornado moved through much of the city, damaging a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses.
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updated 2/23/2012 1:14:18 PM ET 2012-02-23T18:14:18

With the month of March looming, United States tornado chasers are already watching the Southeast as a nasty storm brews with the potential to spin off a batch of tornadoes.

But if funnel clouds develop Thursday or Friday as some forecasters believe, they won't be the first. This tornado season got an early and deadly start in late January when two people were killed by separate twisters in Alabama. Preliminary reports showed 95 tornadoes struck last month, compared with 16 in January during a particularly stormy 2011.

The season usually starts in March and then ramps up for the next couple of months, but forecasting these storm seasons is even more imprecise than predicting hurricane seasons. Tornadoes are too small and too short-lived for scientists to make seasonal predictions. They don't develop like blizzards and hurricanes, which are easier to project.

Difficult to forecast
They pop in and pop out. The storms that give them birth may last only a few hours. Hurricanes and blizzards are lumbering beasts that spend days moving across the satellite maps. When a hurricane approaches, coastlines get days warning to evacuate. With a tornado, if the weather service can let people know 20 minutes in advance, it's considered a victory.

"The Joplin (Missouri) tornado (that killed 158 people last May) wasn't violent until just about the time it got to the hospital," said Harold Brooks, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory, in Norman, Oklahoma. "Even when you're in the field, there are still times when you're surprised by the intensity of the event and how quickly it started."

Story: Joplin tornado came with terrifying speed

If a forecast for a hurricane or blizzard is off by a mile, it's still bad weather. But a mile difference means no damage in a tornado, Brooks said: "It's so much finer in time and space on the tornado, it does make it a harder problem."

It takes a piece of debris only a few seconds to fly around an entire tornado; it takes hours to circle a hurricane. But tornadoes, though smaller, can have stronger winds. Since 1950, there have been 58 tornadoes in the U.S. with winds exceeding 200 mph; six last year alone. Only three hurricanes have made U.S. landfall with winds more than 155 mph.

And forecasters are telling the Southeast and heartland to get ready again.

"It looks like this week we're moving into a slightly more active dynamic pattern," said warning meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center, also in Norman, Oklahoma.

'Definitely more unpredictable'
The percolating Southeastern storm is proof of exactly how hard meteorologists have it. On Tuesday evening, Carbin said, "We're kind of expecting it to be a fairly significant event" and the storm center's website had a small red swath for potential severe storms with tornadoes.

By Wednesday morning, the storm center's forecast was much less clear. While the storm looks bad with potential for tornadoes, one of the key ingredients — unstable upper level air — is not quite behaving as predicted. So that means forecasters have less an idea of when and where the bad weather and potential twisters will hit, said Corey Mead, a meteorologist at the center.

By Wednesday afternoon, the storm prediction center massively expanded its Thursday watch area to include Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and parts of Virginia, the Carolinas and most of Florida.

"A lot of things have to come together at once to have a tornadic storm and the skill at forecasting all those things is near zero," said Howard Bluestein, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. "They are definitely more unpredictable."

All this comes on the heels of one of the worst tornado years in U.S. history. Tornadoes in 2011 started the earliest ever — New Year's Day — killing 550 people, injuring 5,400 and causing $10 billion (euro7.56 billion) in damage over the year, the most in U.S. history. The 2011 season had the most tornadoes in a single day and a single month on record.

Video: Twister terror caught on tape (on this page)

But if you ask tornado experts what that means for this year, they'll answer that they just don't know. Later this summer, meteorologists will meet in a special conference to try to figure out how to do that type of longer-term tornado prediction. And the National Weather Service is installing new radar for live forecasting, tracking and distinguishing of tornadoes. Those together mean that maybe in 2020 or so, meteorologists will be able to say watch out this season or relax a bit — but not just yet, Brooks said.

A new study by Columbia University professor Michael Tippett points out potential factors — vertical wind shear, updraft and a type of rainfall — that might help for long-range tornado forecasts.

Another factor is La Nina, the flip side of El Nino. It's a cooling of the central Pacific Ocean. Scientists have noticed a correlation between strong La Ninas and active tornado seasons — including last year. But it's not so simple or clear-cut, Tippett and others say. The current La Nina is weakening so much it shouldn't be a factor this year, several experts said.

The new radar, called dual polarization, allows meteorologists to see through rain and dark and be sure if high winds are a tornado. In the past, meteorologists had to wait for ground confirmation. This won't help with long-term forecasts but could save lives in real-time because forecasters can be more certain in their warnings, said National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Schlatter.

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Online:

National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center: http://www.spc.noaa.gov/

National Weather Service's summary of 2011 tornado season: http://1.usa.gov/wvq3t8

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Twister terror caught on tape

  1. Transcript of: Twister terror caught on tape

    WILLIAMS: And we're back here live in Joplin with Al Roker and of course our buddy from The Weather Channel , meteorologist Mike Bettes . And, Al , just one question quick to you. How much notice are people saying they had here?

    ROKER: Well, they heard the sirens and some people say within five minutes the tornado hit. Folks in the hospital were saying that.

    WILLIAMS: Now, Mike , as I said to you before the broadcast, I used to live here.

    BETTES: Correct.

    WILLIAMS: And this is a tornado culture. I was in a Walgreen 's today, the weather radio was on at the checkout.

    BETTES: Right.

    WILLIAMS: You're always mindful of it. How is it -- remind folks how it is you were here so quickly.

    BETTES: We were actually on a project with The Weather Channel . We've been storm chasing for the last two weeks. We were targeting this storm. We came in right behind it. We got hailed on, we got rained on, we lost visual of the storm itself, not knowing the tornado was actually just ahead of it. So we had to slow down because we had no visibility. We came into Joplin . We were targeting Joplin , came into town, just literally minutes later, and the next thing we see is just tragedy all around us. People in the streets just wandering aimlessly. It was -- I get choked up. I got to be honest with you. You -- we know these things can happen, but I think when you see them with your own two eyes and you witness them firsthand, it just puts it in a whole different light.

    WILLIAMS: You had -- you had walking wounded behind you. You had people who hadn't been triaged medically yet.

    BETTES: I saw things I didn't want to see, to be frank with you: people that were wounded, people that unfortunately had perished in the tornado. And it just, you know, your heart went out to people that lived here because it was their family members, it was their neighbors, it was their pets, you know, all these things that mean so much to them they didn't have anymore. And I think everyone was just in a state of shock. I was.

    WILLIAMS: And, Al , was I -- was I right as a layperson, this is about as much energy as nature can focus on one area?

    ROKER: It is, and the sad part is we've got more tomorrow. There's a risk of severe weather stretching from Texas all the way to New England . But there is a strong risk tomorrow in this area, including Joplin , Missouri . And the Weather Service is now saying it may be a high risk . So we're going to have to keep an eye on this. Watch tomorrow morning " Wake Up with Al ," The Weather Channel , "Today" show at 7.

    WILLIAMS: And while we're talking, I see weather over our shoulders again. Mike Bettes , Al Roker , thank you gentlemen both.

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