Too Many Tornadoes

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Marilee Thomas of Beaver City, Nebraska. And a tornado. [source]
Mid-Americans … Minnesotans, Texans, Nebraskans and denizens of Arkansas, and everyone in between, understand tornadoes, but to varying degrees. There are differences by region in how we deal with them. In Arkansas, I’ve seen foolish bravado. The tornado shelter there is known as the “fraidy hole” and having one or not in your back yard may be linked to one’s sense of machismo. People from Missouri that I have known have a deep respect for tornadoes. An example: A few years back there was a talk being given at The U when the tornado sirens went off. Looking out the windows all we could see was black punctuated by white dots (the hail hitting the window). That was not good at 3:00 in the afternoon. As the group sat there wondering what to do, my student, Lynne, stood up and said “I’m from Missouri. I’m going to the basement. You’all can stay here if you like.”


That tornado didn’t kill anyone, but it did happen to rip off the top half of a tree in the front yard of a house I had just signed on to purchase. Miles away from where the talk was being given. What luck.

The big tornado that came through Minnesota about ten years ago, one of the biggest tornadoes ever recorded, resulted in only two deaths because Minnesotans are neither macho nor ignorant of tornadoes. We just go to he basement when we are told.

But the luck of a lot of mid-Americans is not going so well these days. The tornado death toll over the last couple of weeks in in the couple-dozen range. That is not a cyclone in the Indian Ocean or even a Hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. But it is a lot for tornadoes. We are having a very very bad year, it would seem.

Up here in Minnesota, the cold and long winter we had caused a lot of regular people to question the validity of the Global Warming claims. That is a reasonable question to ask … if it is supposed to be getting warmer, why did it get colder? The answer, of course, is that year to year weather patterns in a given area will always fluctuate a great deal, so one cannot use one’s local experience over one year to evaluate large scale and long (or even medium) term patterns. This is not a question of the nature of climate. Rather, it is a question of the nature of science education. By the time every American is out of high school, they should understand this. They don’t, of course. They don’t get this any more than they get that the summer-winter seasonal march is NOT caused by the earth moving closer to and farther from the sun.

(And since they don’t understand it, their ignorance can be exploited for political purposes. What a shame.)

More frequent and/or more powerful tornadoes in one year may also be a matter of “secular” variation … as opposed to long term climate change. But this could also be the result of global warming. So, to all those Minnesotans who say “Hey, it was a cold winter, I guess the Global Warming scare is over…,” one might respond, equally stupidly, “Yea, but look at all these tornados…. ”

There is a video here that shows some of the tornado action over the last day. I find it fascinating that the folks in one part of the video figured that there were no tornadoes around because the view northward from their porch showed clear skies. Meanwhile, a tornado sneaked up right behind ‘em, coming from the south! Tornadoes, though, almost always come from the west or the south. Why would they not know this? Is our society that buffered from nature that the basics of which way the wind blows is simply unknown to many people?

Here is an animated GIF of some weather just north of the Gulf of Mexico, showing the movement of energy from the Gulf northwards, in this case causing deadly tornadoes.

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(This is from a blog on The Weather Channel)

The fact that tornadoes almost always come from the west or the south in this region is related to what tornadoes are: They are highly concentrated storm energy, and part of a larger system of energy being diffused from the Gulf of Mexico northwards and, because of global wind patterns, eastward. Indeed, this region, the American Midwest and the Southeast, is anomalous in the flow of equatorial energy towards the poles. The southeast should be much dryer than it is, and the upper Midwest should be (probably) a bit warmer than it is (in the winter). But the mountains to the west and the Gulf of Mexico (a hyper-warm body of water) to the south change all that and make things act differently than they might on an idealized planet with fewer obstructions from mountains, oddly placed continents, and other factors.

It is like placing a rock in a stream: The rock may cause the water to roil, to form a standing wave, to form a whirlpool. The rock is a perturbation in the basic, straightforward process of the water running down stream. Turns in the channel, changes in depth, rocks, tree boles angling in from the bank, all of this makes the river current odd and quirky and you get eddies and waves instead of a nice even flow. The odd distribution of continents (in relation to oceans), mountains, etc. do this as well. So we get hurricanes in the North Atlantic but not in the South Atlantic. And we have this thing called the “tornado belt” which moves around from year to year but is generally in this region where the Gulf energy plows northward and eastward across a big flattish area.

Tornadoes happen in mid-America. There is a pattern to when and where they happen, even though the pattern is a little complex. There is a pattern to what happens locally when conditions are right for a tornado. Knowing these patterns should be helpful, just like knowing the traffic patterns related to your commute (or your drive up to the lake) is helpful.

Knowing a bit more about the science could even save your life.


July 18th, 1986 Fridley, Minnesota Tornado (some of the most amazing tornado footage I’ve ever seen):

Some of the damage caused by this tornado is preserved in a local park.

Comments

  1. #1 ERV
    May 11, 2008

    This spring, the sirens are going off at least twice a week– sometimes multiple times the same day. I have always lived in the midwest, and Ive never seen it this bad before.

    And of course, Im now living in an ancient house with a very-not-safe-looking basement. I guess if shit hits the fan, Im only a block away from the ER…

  2. #2 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    May 11, 2008

    We just had a number of tornadoes here in the Charleston, SC area. Not sure how much damage was done but it appears that a fair amount in the southern part of the county.

    One bonus however is it got me out of driving to Charlotte for my nephew’s christening. At a Catholic Church. That took…2 freaking hours.

    Whew.

  3. #3 Mr. Upright
    May 11, 2008

    We were up late last night with tornado sirens going off in Birmingham, AL. I was watching circulation on Doppler radar moving ESE in our direction, getting ready to move into the small interior bathroom or under-the-stairs closet. I accidentally fell asleep for a few minutes, only to be awakened again by sirens as a tornado had formed just SSE of us. The circulation was over us and just past, and the tornado formed in the part that had passed. (Phew!) We don’t have a basement, of course.

  4. #4 Mr.Mom
    May 11, 2008

    Get used to it people, the earth has a nasty infection and its getting a fever…

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