California Tornadoes

March 9, 2023

tornadoes in California

Tornadoes are a weather phenomenon that can appear in California from time to time. According to the National Weather Service, the state averages around 11 tornadoes a year.

Unlike the Midwest, where "Tornado Alley" is a region that sees lots of thunderstorms, California doesn't get tornadoes too often. This is because mountains prevent cold air from coming through and triggering tornadoes.

Locations of tornadoes

Most tornadoes in the United States occur east of the Rocky Mountains. They are also rare west of the Rockies. However, there are some areas in the country that are more vulnerable to tornadoes than others.

California is no exception to this rule and many cities have a Tornado Watch in place when severe weather is forecasted. This interactive map shows the locations of tornadoes that have occurred in the state.

The first one to hit California on December 2nd was the Kerman tornado. The tornado entered Kerman from the South and carved a path NE through town doing extensive damage.

Several homes in town had their roofs completely collapsed with few or no walls left standing. The tornado then directly impacted Kerman Middle School where residents had taken shelter.

The tornado then proceeded through farmland NE of Kerman doing significant damage. It dissipated in rural Madera County a short time after exiting Kerman.

Types of tornadoes

Tornadoes occur when warm, moist air near the ground combines with thunderstorms. This combination can only happen when atmospheric lift — the lifting of air that causes storms — is present.

The topography of California is such that it doesn’t allow for the atmospheric lift needed to produce storms, so tornadoes are rare in this state. However, they do occur in the Central Valley during winter and spring.

These tornadoes are typically weak, and can only wreak minimal damage on houses and farms. But they can be dangerous, especially when they reach high speeds.

Another type of tornado is a fire whirl, which occurs when intense heat and turbulent winds combine to form whirling eddies that suck up burning debris. These whirls can be incredibly strong, reaching up to 143 miles per hour.

During the summer of 2020, a fire tornado struck San Diego and grew to a mile wide. It was one of the most devastating tornadoes in history, but it wasn’t the first.

Severity of tornadoes

The state of California has a unique landscape and weather system that makes tornadoes rare. In fact, according to the American Meteorological Society, only 11 tornadoes occur in California each year.

Tornadoes in California typically start as winter thunderstorms in the Pacific, but when they get near the coast, the cold air combines with the warm air on land, resulting in the meteorological instability needed for a tornado to form.

There are also some areas in the state that are prone to tornadoes, such as the Central Valley. These storms are usually weaker than those that happen in the Midwest, but they still can cause severe damage and even death.

A small town in Central California got a surprise this morning when a powerful tornado touched down on the ground. The tornado traveled about half a mile and did EF-1 level damage. It ripped down trees and damaged a few homes, according to reports from the Modesto Bee.

Causes of tornadoes

Tornadoes are one of nature’s most violent storms. They are revolving columns of air that are spawned by thunderstorms and can reach speeds up to 300 miles per hour.

They are formed by atmospheric instability - warm moist air near the ground, and cooler dry air aloft. They also require wind shear – a change in wind speed and direction with height.

California is a state that is often affected by tornadoes. Since 1950, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded 461 tornadoes in the state.

While most tornadoes happen in the spring and fall, they can happen any time of year. In winter, monsoonal rain can cause tornadoes in Southern California.

They are dangerous to people and animals as they cause widespread destruction. They can demolish houses and uproot trees that are not well rooted. They also create environmental pollution as debris is blown at high speeds and causes damage to the environment.


Tornado Dave is the best place to learn more about severe weather and climate science. He's a veritable tornado of information, and he loves nothing more than educating others about the importance of being prepared for extreme weather events. Make sure to check in with Tornado Dave often, as he's always updating his blog with the latest news and information!
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