W. Kentucky now prime tornado area

HOPKINSVILLE — Meteorologist Rick Shanklin can't predict what tornado season will look like this year, but he can say with near certainty that Western Kentucky is likely to see the worst of it.

Central Kentucky has seen an increase in smaller tornadoes the past couple of years. Eastern Kentucky hardly ever gets tornadoes. But the western part of the state is being increasingly pounded by the big ones.

"We have had among the highest frequency of strong and violent tornadoes this decade than anywhere in the nation," Shanklin told the Kentucky New Era in an interview.

Shanklin works in the National Weather Service's Paducah office, which covers 58 counties in Western Kentucky, southeast Missouri, southern Illinois and southwest Indiana.

Although the highest frequency of tornadoes previously occurred near the Great Plains, commonly referred to as Tornado Alley, Shanklin said that since the turn of the century the tornado region has shifted east, encompassing Western Kentucky.

Large "super-cell" tornadoes that form behind large storms are becoming more common in the area.

But Joe Sullivan, Shanklin's counterpart at the National Weather Service office in Louisville, said Central Kentucky is more likely to see smaller tornadoes "that spin up on the front edge of a squall line."

Those have increased in recent years, he said. He pointed specifically to the 20 tornadoes that hit in early February 2008. Eighteen were squall-line twisters.

Tornadoes really drop off when the topography gets steeper, whether it is around the Rockies or the Appalachians.

"Really, the undeclared edge of the tornado area in Kentucky is I-75," Sullivan said.

Shanklin, in Paducah, said the peak season for tornadoes is April, May and June, with most occurring in May.

"We average about half of all tornadoes we get year-round in those three months," Shanklin said.

The Paducah Warning Area averages 22 tornadoes a year, about one tornado every three years within a given county, he said.

Of all the counties in the warning area, Calloway, Christian and Hopkins counties are most prone to tornadoes, Shanklin said. He said that's because of its geography and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and Canada.

"Those features can help yield more unstable air mass environments and stronger winds throughout the atmosphere."

Still, Shanklin said, tornadoes are difficult to predict. As far as he can tell, nothing indicates that the season will produce a particularly large number of storms.

"It only takes one strong weather system to move through the area, though," he said.

Particularly during the next several months, it's important to be prepared for these storms, he said.

Of the 38 tornado fatalities in the Paducah Warning Area in the past 13 years, 34 occurred at night. This is why it's important to have a weather radio and to use it properly, he said.

Shanklin said it's important to have a "designated weather watcher" in each home to keep up with weather reports daily, especially during a tornado watch.