What's the Difference Between a Tornado Watch and a Warning?

By: Carrie Tatro  | 

tornado
A tornado touches down near Dodge City, Kansas, May 24, 2016. Ryan McGinnis/Getty Images
What happened was just this: The wind began to switch, the house to pitch and suddenly the hinges started to unhitch ...
Dorothy Gale, "The Wizard of Oz"

Whether you're in Kansas anymore or not, these are all sure signs that a tornado is in the offing. Tornadoes are not only destructive — along with hail, high winds and heavy rain — they're often deadly results of severe supercell thunderstorms that can pop up anywhere with very little warning. So whether you live in a region like Dorothy's that's prone to twisters or not, knowing the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning can potentially save your life and the lives of the people and pets you love.

Of course severe weather can happen any time of the year, but the most tornadoes occur during the months of March, April and May, with April marking the peak of tornado season.

In the U.S., there are three regions that experience a higher number of tornadoes than the rest of the country. Florida is one; "Tornado Alley" and "Dixie Alley" are the others. While there are no hard and fast borders to these areas, Tornado Alley is generally the region from central Texas northward to northern Iowa, and from central Kansas and Nebraska east to western Ohio. Tornadoes in this area usually happen in late spring and occasionally the early fall. In the Gulf Coast, a separate tornado corridor nicknamed "Dixie Alley" stretches from eastern Texas and Arkansas across Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and into the Carolinas and Missouri, with a high frequency of tornadoes occurring in the late fall (October through December).

Climate Scientists project that 2021 will see more twisters than normal, partly because of a continuing La Niña climate pattern that is expected to remain in place and influence weather patterns across the globe.

With a clear understanding of watches and warnings you'll be better prepared to navigate tornado season's various forecasts and notifications and make sure you have a safety plan in place. Here's the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning, according to the National Weather Service.

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A Tornado Watch

A watch means be prepared! The potential for a tornado exists in and near the watch area. A tornado watch does not mean that a tornado has been seen by the naked eye or even indicated on weather radar. A watch simply means that atmospheric conditions are favorable for the formation of tornadoes within thunderstorms.

A tornado watch does not require any immediate action on your part. Watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center where tornadoes may occur and typically cover numerous counties and even states. So, stay up to date on the current weather situation if you're in a watch zone and be prepared to find safe shelter if necessary.

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A Tornado Warning

A warning means take action now! A tornado has been visually spotted or indicated by weather radar. A warning advises that danger is rapidly approaching or already occurring and that your life and property are in jeopardy. Warnings are issued by your local forecast office and include a much smaller area — generally the size of a city or small county — that may be affected by a tornado. Once a tornado warning is issued for your area, you should take cover immediately. Go to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid all windows. If you're in a mobile home, an automobile or outdoors, move to the closest substantial shelter to protect yourself from flying debris.

Unfortunately for Dorothy, there were no official severe weather warnings in 1939, the year "The Wizard of Oz" was released — it wasn't until 1943 that the Weather Bureau formed experimental tornado warning systems in Kansas. Which was not a healthy situation for a wicked witch.

Stay vigilant out there.

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