GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Tornadoes can happen at any time in Michigan, but the spring is typically when the most deadly severe weather arrives. A volatile jet stream can set the stage for a collision of drastically different air masses and produce large, violent tornadoes.
Michigan averages 16 tornadoes each year across the entire state when looking over a span of 30 years. In the last 10 years, Michigan usually only saw 13. There hasn’t been a single tornado fatality since 1985 in Michigan.
Tornadoes are most frequent in Michigan in the month of June, but they are often not as strong as the twisters that form earlier in the season (like in April or May). Typically, our state sees an average of three tornadoes in May and July, with four tornadoes touching down across the Mitten in the month of June.
Many of the tornadoes that have formed in West Michigan recently have been considered “weak” on the official tornado scale. Even small tornadoes can do significant damage. These weaker tornadoes have formed in “high-shear, low-cape” environments, which make them hard to forecast, quick to touch down, and quick to leave. Violent tornadoes are considered to be EF-4 to EF-5 in strength. These can demolish whole houses.
The last time West Michigan saw a violent tornado was more than 50 years ago. An EF-3 struck downtown Kalamazoo in 1980, killing five people. Since then, the tornadoes that have hit our state have had much less impact.
Because tornadic activity has been quieter in recent years compared to history, safety procedures often become a little rusty for residents. Many know in a tornado it is safest to get into a basement or to the lowest level of a sturdy structure away from windows or outside walls. Often there is more confusion when people are stuck outside, in a mobile home, or in a car during a tornado event. Recent events nationally have revealed many still choose to seek shelter under an overpass, which is a dangerous idea.
Lately, the advancement of technology has allowed for earlier warning times with severe storms that may produce damaging winds, lightning or hail and tornadoes. For years, tornado sirens were the only way to get a warning while outdoors.
Now, with the help of increasingly improved cellphone service, tornado warnings and severe weather alerts can reach a much greater audience. Tornado sirens typically can only be heard for about a mile radius but a cellphone alert has the advantage of targeting a user directly.
It is important for everyone to be weather-aware during severe weather season, and not to rely on a siren to alert danger. Watch Storm Team 8 to see the days on which thunderstorms are expected. Be sure to have a weather radio or weather alerts customized on your phone.
The outlook for this year is for a close-to-average severe weather year, with thunderstorms kicking up in late May and early June.
Damaging winds usually affect Michigan more than tornadoes, with a higher frequency of occurrences. This season, remember that straight-line winds can do just as much damage as a weak tornado, and watch for severe thunderstorms as well as tornado-warned storms for potential problems.