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A tornado touching down near Wray, Colorado, last May
David Crowl
This map shows about how many twisters hit each state through mid-May this year.
Jim McMahon
A man walks through the rubble of a home in Adel, Georgia, after a deadly tornado in January.
AP Photo/Branden Camp
Loose turkeys wander through debris after a tornado ripped through a turkey farm near Chetek, Wisconsin, on May 16.
Dan Reiland/ The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP
Twister Trouble
Could 2017 be one of the worst years ever for tornadoes?

By Joe Bubar

Tornadoes can whip up without warning. These cone-shaped, violently spinning clouds have winds that can reach 300 miles per hour and wipe out nearly everything in their paths. So far in 2017, they’ve been churning up more trouble than usual. So far, 755 twisters have been reported this year in the U.S. That’s the most tornadoes that have been recorded in January to mid-May in at least a decade.

“We’re on a record pace for tornadoes,” says Patrick Marsh, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Through mid-May, twisters had killed 33 people, including 16 in Georgia alone. Tornadoes had also ravaged (caused severe damage) homes and other buildings, causing several billion dollars in damage across the country.

AN EARLY START

Spring and summer are usually the busiest seasons for tornadoes. But tornado season began early this year, with 432 twisters touching down in the first three months of 2017. So why did tornadoes get a head start this year?

To answer that question, it’s helpful to know how a twister forms. Two of the key ingredients are warm, moist air traveling low to the ground and cool, dry air above it. When those two air masses meet, a thunderstorm can form. Under certain conditions, the storm can produce a tornado.

This winter was unusually warm in much of the eastern U.S., and water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were also far above average. The warm, moist air from the Gulf combined with cool, dry air traveling east from above the Rocky Mountains, causing more thunderstorms than usual for that time of year.

“Anytime you have severe thunderstorms, you have the possibility of tornadoes,” says Marsh.

Meteorologists warned that as the weather warms up in late spring, we could be in for even more tornado trouble. On Tuesday, more than 20 tornadoes were reported across the central U.S., with eight spotted just in Oklahoma.

This article first appeared in the May 1, 2017, issue of Scholastic News Edition 5/6. It was updated for this website.