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Beyond tornado alley: Understanding wind damage with holistic, regional risk assessment tools

Tornado alley and Dixie alley are colloquial terms for tornado-prone areas in the southern U.S. Tornados can be destructive and even deadly. Winds that are not deadly can still cause damage, particularly to managed pine stands. A new analysis of wind damage risk in forests promises to be useful to land managers. The analysis provides a regional snapshot of overall risk – along with management implications that may need to be updated as the climate continues to warm, particularly if damaging winds keep becoming more common and severe.

Fallen and splintered pine trees, the result of a windstorm.
The southern U.S. is a major source of wood products, and also experiences major windstorms. There is evidence that damaging storms are becoming stronger and more common. USDA Forest Service photo by Jason Cooper.

The southeastern U.S. is sometimes called the world’s wood basket. More than half the total wood volume of the U.S. comes from the South. This region also has major windstorms - severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, derechos, downbursts, and hurricanes. There is evidence that damaging storms are becoming stronger and more common. At the same time, researchers predict a large increase in planted pine in the Southeast over the next 50 years, representing a significant industry investment. To protect their investment and make wise management decisions, land managers need a way to assess the risk of strong winds.

The spatial resolution of the models makes them more useful for risk assessment than typical visual representations of tornado alley and Dixie alley. The research shows that tornado-like activity was highest in parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas as well as parts of Mississippi and Alabama. Additionally, the models identified predictive variables for discriminating between broken branches and greater damage levels like uprooting or trunk breakage. These models have major implications for risk assessment within the timber industry and serve as a baseline for future assessments under changing climatic conditions.

Principal Investigator
James T. Vogt, Project Leader, Supervisory Biological Scientist
4552 - Insects, Diseases, and Invasive Plants
Predicting risks of tornado and severe thunderstorm damage to southeastern U.S. forests
External Partners
Christine Fortuin, Mississippi State University
Cristian Montes, University of Georgia
Kamal Gandhi, University of Georgia