It Spins Me Right Round: What’s The Big Deal With Tornadoes?

Atmospheric Science Students, Environment, STS Students

By Cory Schultz

If you look at the annual average number of tornadoes per country, the United States reigns supreme, whether we like it or not. And if we look at South Dakota, the state is not without its share of tornadic activity. For instance, as Dennis Todey, Jay Trobec, and H. Michael Mogil write, “A massive outbreak of tornadoes placed the state in the severe weather record book on the evening of June 24, 2003” (19). On that day, sixty-seven tornadoes touched down over a 6-hour period, a single-state record tornado occurrence.

So, you may be thinking to yourself right now, “I live in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. We don’t have a problem with tornadoes.” Well, what if I told you that tornado activity has increased in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota in the last decade? This increase in activity is not typical for the Northern Black Hills, since only nine tornadoes have been reported in this region since NOAA started gathering tornado data in 1950. What makes this even more alarming is that, of these nine cases, four have occurred in the last decade. This increase is the focus of my capstone with my two-part research question: Do the Northern Black Hills tornadoes that occurred in 2015, 2018, and 2020 have any similar characteristics to each other? Will this help determine when new tornadoes will form over the same region? 

Map of the Black Hills showing tornado tracks and the strength of the tornadoes. A handful are circled west of Lead, SD.
Map of Northern Black Hills tornado tracks and strengths on the EF scale. Red circles indicate tornadoes being researched for this capstone. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Tornado research over complex (i.e., hilly or mountainous) terrain has been ongoing for the last 30-plus years with increasing knowledge of what complex terrain can do to a tornado’s behavior and how it affects the supercells that produce them. This research has focused on a variety of topics, ranging from what forest damage can tell us about the tornado’s characteristics and severity to how the terrain may help in the supercell intensification and the creation of a tornado.

The study of tornadoes over complex terrain is still relatively new and many aspects have limited research and understanding, largely due to the focus up to this point on tornadoes over flat terrain and in populated regions. My capstone will add to the growing knowledge of how terrain affects supercell and tornado development and their characteristics. It will investigate how a supercell transitioning from the high plains of Wyoming into the Northern Black Hills can be influenced by the complex terrain and whether the terrain contributed to the development of various tornadoes or whether their development was driven by other processes not linked to the Black Hills. Every tornado is unique and, because of this, research is essential to improving the understanding of tornadoes over both flat and complex terrain. Increasing research conducted around the world on this subject will result in a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts that tornadoes over complex terrain can have on both communities and the environment.

Photo of gray skies with a funnel-shaped tornado in the center.
Photograph of a tornado in southeast Wyoming on June 5, 2009. Photo: Sean Waugh of VORTEX II / NOAA / OAR / NSSL

The Northern Black Hills is a very popular location during South Dakota’s tornado season. The potential for tornadoes to move over the area is dangerous for residents and tourists alike. The presence of a tornado in the Black Hills can lead not only to direct property damage but to the possibility of trees falling on people and infrastructure. Because of this, researching the Northern Black Hills tornadoes is important in aiding the effort to better predict and detect tornadoes for the region, leading to more informed communities and tourists. It is important for not only meteorologists to understand how complex terrain affects tornadoes but also the public, due to the uncertainty that comes with this interaction. Looking into the Northern Black Hills’ past tornadoes might be one solution to reduce the risk and introduce a way of determining whether there will be tornadoes in the region in the future. Tornadoes are chaotic phenomena that must be studied in all environments to be more aware of our surroundings and better prepared for what is yet to come.


Todey, D., Trobec, J., & Mogil, H. M. (2009). South Dakota’s climate and weather. Weatherwise, 62(6), 16–23.

I am majoring in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences with a minor in Environmental Science. Witnessing the power of weather and the Atlas blizzard’s unpredictability pushed me to study Atmospheric Science and learn how these events unfold and what we still need to uncover. After graduation, I plan to pursue a career with the National Weather Service to help contribute to a weather-ready nation. When not studying the weather, I enjoy hiking, camping, and traveling the world, including to Iceland this past May.

Photo of Godafoss waterfall in Iceland. Horseshoe-shaped falls in the center of the image, with snow-covered ground and rocks around it.
Photo of Godafoss waterfall during my trip to Iceland in May of 2022. Photo: Cory Schultz

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