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Tornado Targets: Where and when you are most likely to see a tornado

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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - While it is impossible to predict the exact location where a future tornado will hit, Meteorologists understand that by studying climatology, you can discover some very important things such as when we have the best chance of seeing a tornado in the area.

"There are three distinct peaks, one in the springtime, and one with the tropical cyclones in September and then another in November associated with strong cold fronts," explains Warning Coordination Meteorologist Steve Pfaff.

He studies the time of year when the atmosphere is primed to unload. Such as the summertime, in association with heightened tropical activity and waterspouts like the one captured on video in 2011. With warm summer ocean water temperatures waterspouts can form over the open ocean and move ashore, technically becoming tornadoes.

[See Meteorologist Robb Ellis' explanation of the different types of waterspouts]

But it's the spring and fall when we here in North Carolina when we can see an increase in powerful long track tornado activity as cold fronts encounter warm and moist air.

"When these cold fronts run into that area of instability they produce phenomenal thunderstorms that can produce tornadoes," says Pfaff.

These strong storms in the spring will push eastward, typically until they encounter the much cooler - more stable - air mass near the Atlantic Ocean.  Then frequently they can fall apart. But in the fall, when ocean water temperatures are often warmer than the surround landmass, there is no protection from the stable marine layer. In the fall those tornadoes can rip right through the coastal plains, such was the case in Riegelwood back in mid November 2006 – when an F-3 tornado busted an 11 mile path of destruction, killing 8 – less than 20 miles from downtown Wilmington.

So where are you most likely to get nailed by a devastating tornado in southeastern North Carolina?  The farther west and north, the better your chances for encountering a deadly twister.

"When you think of tornado alley you think of Texas, Nebraska, Kansas," says Pfaff. "But we do have smaller tornado alleys and one that impinges upon parts of southeast North Carolina where we do have a frequency of long track tornadoes."

Just like our own Carolina barbeque - we have our own tornado alley here in the Carolinas.

"The research shows that the long track tornado, the Carolina Tornado Alley - Raleigh, Lumberton Elizabethtown is where we see a distinct peak in long track tornadoes and some of them can be quite intense, EF-3, EF-4 type tornadoes," remarks Pfaff.

Bladen, northern Pender and Northern Columbus counties are all on the edge of an expansive hot spot where long track tornadoes can form.

[What is the EF scale?]

Some of the biggest outbreaks in north Carolina's history ripped through this region. Including the 1984 Carolina's Tornado Outbreak.

[Learn details of North Carolina's most deadly tornado spree]

While knowing where and when you are most likely to encounter these deadly twisters is indeed useful information, it is also important to remember that no place is immune to the threat of tornadoes, no matter the season, or proximity to the coast.

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