Scientists puzzled over huge tornado outbreak

The tornado that struck Alabama was a half-mile wide.
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WEST LAFAYETTE - More than 300 people died this week alone because of tornadoes. This month has been one of the deadliest in United States history for severe weather.

Wednesday's destruction from the massive killer tornadoes that ripped apart six southern states terrifyingly caps the worst tornado season in decades, surpassing the 1974 Super Tornado Outbreak. In Indiana, there are 30 confirmed twisters this month, a record for April.

Scientists like those at Purdue University are left with few answers for an apparent increase in tornado activity except for one clue.

"When we are in a La Nina pattern as we are now, you tend to have the Dixie Alley states much more active as we've seen this spring season," said Prof. Ernie Agee, Purdue University.

Experts are divided over whether La Nina, the unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, is playing a role in creating over 600 tornado reports across the nation this month. But most agree that April has been a volatile month.

Purdue and Ball State students were part of Vortex Two, the largest tornado field study ever and part of an Eyewitness News special report in July. Scientists are just beginning to analyze the data collected in hopes to better understand the unpredictable storms.

"If we can get at the mechanics of how a tornado works, we might be able to better design structures to be able to withstand the windfields of a tornado," said Erin Jones, Purdue research assistant.

Purdue grad students Mallie Toth, Eric Robinson, and research assistant Erin Jones all took part in Vortex Two.

"Hopefully, we'll have some good information about the relationship between the parent thunderstorm and the tornado on the ground. What occurs between there that helps that tornado form and other storms that don't have tornadoes form," said Toth.

While scientists aren't prepared to draw any conclusions over Aprils massive number of tornadoes, they agree there is much better detection and warning in the critical minutes before a touchdown to help saves lives.

The death toll from Wednesday's storms reached 319 across seven states, including 228 in Alabama, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak since March 1932, when another Alabama storm killed 332 people. Tornadoes that swept across the South and Midwest in April 1974 left 315 people dead.

Hundreds if not thousands of people were injured - 900 in Tuscaloosa alone - and as many as 1 million Alabama homes and businesses remained without power.