Where Is Tornado Alley? These Are the Biggest Tornado Hotspots in America

When it comes to tornadoes, the U.S. is No. 1. Every year, an average of 1,253 twisters are recorded across the United States, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Compare that to Canada, the country with the second-highest number of tornadoes per year, at about 100.

Tornadoes – which are violently rotating funnels of air that descend from a thunderstorm to the ground – can occur anywhere in the U.S., but they’re far more common in some states than others.

Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley

Tornado

A tornado is seen South of Dodge City, Kansas, on May 24, 2016. | Brian Davidson/Getty Images

America has two main tornado hotspots: Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley.

Tornado Alley is the unofficial name for a large swath of the central U.S. where tornadoes are particularly frequent. While there’s no strict definition of Tornado Alley’s boundaries, it typically includes all or part of these states:

  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Colorado

Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and Illinois also experience relatively frequent tornadoes (45 or more per year, according to NOAA data), and are sometimes considered part of Tornado Alley.

Tornadoes are also frequent in an area some people have dubbed Dixie Alley. This is “a west-east oriented oval-shaped offshoot of the original Tornado Alley in the central U.S.,” according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski. Dixie Alley encompasses all or part of:

  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Georgia

Then there’s Florida. Though it’s not part of either Tornado Alley or Dixie Alley, the Sunshine State actually experiences more tornadoes every year – 66 on average – than any other state but Texas. That’s because thunderstorms are an almost daily occurrence, and tropical storms and thunderstorms aren’t uncommon. However, Florida’s climate means that its tornadoes are typically less severe than those in other states.

The Wizard of Oz aside, Kansas isn’t actually the state most prone to tornadoes. That honor goes to Texas, which has an average of 155 twisters per year. Kansas is in second place at 96. All states in Tornado Alley or Dixie Alley experience an average of 30 or more tornadoes every year. States on the West Coast or in the Northeast may see just one or two tornadoes a year, in contrast.

Why tornadoes are more frequent in Tornado Alley

Why are the Plains states more prone to tornadoes than the rest of the country? You can blame a mix of geography and climate, National Geographic explains. Cold, dry Arctic comes down from the Rocky Mountains and Canada, and hot dry air blows in from Arizona and New Mexico. Meanwhile, warm wet air moves upward from the Gulf of Mexico. When these air masses come together, that creates the ideal conditions for large thunderstorms, which in turn can lead to tornadoes. 

Where tornadoes are rare

Scared of twisters? Only two states averaged zero tornadoes between 1991 and 2010, according to NOAA: Alaska and Rhode Island. Alaska has had just four recorded tornadoes since 1950. But even states where tornadoes are rare can get twisters. In 2017, five tornadoes touched down in one day in Maine. There were no injuries, but homes, trees, and boats were damaged.

Several other states, including Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Delaware were virtually tornado-free. Tornadoes are also unusual in states like Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Maine, and New Jersey.

The deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history

Tornado damage in Joplin, Missouri.

Tornado damage in Joplin, Missouri | Julie Denesha/Getty Images

While frightening to witness, most tornadoes aren’t deadly. Improved forecasting and warning systems mean that today’s tornadoes tend to cause fewer fatalities than those in the past. However, deadly tornadoes still occur, especially when they happen outside of known tornado hotspots or at unusual times of the year. (Most tornadoes happen in the late spring and early fall in Tornado Alley, and in late fall in Dixie Alley.)

These are the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history, according to NOAA:

  • Flint, Michigan, June 8, 1953: 116 people killed and 844 injured
  • New Richmond, Wisconsin, June 12, 1899: 117 killed and 200 injured
  • Amite, Louisiana, and Purvis, Mississippi, April 24, 1908: 143 killed and 770 injured
  • Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011: 158 killed and 1,000 injured
  • Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas tornadoes, April 9, 1947: 181 killed and 970 injured
  • Gainesville, Georgia, April 6, 1936: 203 killed and 1,600 injured
  • Tupelo, Mississippi, April 5, 1936: 216 killed and 700 injured
  • Louis, Missouri, May 27, 1896: 255 killed and 1,000 injured
  • Natchez, Mississippi, May 6, 1840: 317 killed and 109 injured
  • Tri-State Tornado (Missouri, Illinois, Indiana), March 18, 1925: 695 killed and 2,027 injured

A historic tornado outbreak also occurred in April 2011, when 362 confirmed tornadoes over a dozen states killed 321 people and caused $11 billion in damages.