Huxley and I went to Target to look at weather radios and found out that they don’t carry them. But the three Target employees that were gathered near the cameras and electronics with whom we inquired were interested to know why we were looking for one.

“You’re about the tenth person today who has asked about weather radios. What gives?”

Apparently they missed Minnesota’s National Tornado Appreciation Week, which was yesterday1. And, they had missed the news that we were expecting a bad year for tornadoes.

Anyway, Target does not carry weather radios. I didn’t really care, because I had planned to buy mine on line. I just wanted to see what a couple of models looked like. I ended up ordering the Midland HH54VP2 Portable Emergency Weather Radio with SAME (Black). It has a recharger pack. Since I would like to have the capacity to get severe weather alerts in the car while traveling and up north at the cabin, this walkie-talkie-like device seemed the best choice. If you are interested in getting one, and don’t need it to be portable, various consumer reviews rank the MIDLAND WR300, which is more of a desktop model, as the best choice.

Tornadoes are for real. Last June, traveling north, I met a man from Wadena, Minnesota. We had stopped for gas in Rice, between Saint Cloud and Little Falls. The sky was filled with interesting clouds, which reminded me of a gas stop in the same place the previous July when we witnessed a several inch deep deposit of hail. Poetic justice seemed best served by pulling out my camera and photographing the back edge of the front that had just moved through. I knew the storms were serious from an earlier look at the radar, but I had not yet heard any specific news.

The man from Wadena was standing outside the gas station. He started to talk to me, about the clouds, and the weather. He seemed to have something on his mind, perhaps something he wanted to get off his mind. Then he said this:

“I haven’t been able to get through to my mother. She lives in Wadena.”

I knew roughly where Wadena was, but I did not understand the significance of what he said. He could tell.

“The town’s been flattened. I’m on my way there for a high school reunion. It looks more like it’s going to be a high school clean-up.”

We chatted a bit more, as he and his wife picked up their items in the small store, paid for their gas. When they drove off, she waved good bye as though we were old friends. She might have been starting to cry.

We stopped again in north Baxter, give Huxley a break (he was new at driving to the cabin). I went into the shop at another gas station and asked about the weather. “Yeah, it was very windy. Good thing it happened during daytime, or it would have knocked the stars right out of the sky. Three waves of storm came through. I talked to my mom up in Jenkins, and she said there was a very tough wind but no debris, but I hear twisters touched down over by Cross Lake.”

I mentioned that to my wife. “Cross Lake had twisters on the ground. Right after you got off the phone with that catering service in Cross Lake. I wonder if your sister’s bachelorette party is still on!”

“Not funny,” was the reply.

The bachelorette party did go on as planned. As it turned out, there were a lot of tornados last year but we had relatively few encounters with them. I had experienced much stormier years in Minnesota.

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This post is a re-write and combination of a couple of earlier posts, significantly updated. [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. 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 friend, 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. That was miles away from where the talk was being given. It also ripped up tree tops and took off occasional roof shingles from homes between school and my daughter’s daycare center, making me wonder if Julia had experienced her first tornado. The small twister (which would have been very unlikely to damage the well built facility) actually lifted off and disappeared about a block before, judgin by the debris we tracked on our way there to pick her up. The kids spent a bit of time in their “tornado zone” (the part of the building least likely to be destroyed in a tornado).

The big tornado that came through Minnesota about ten years ago, one of the biggest tornadoes ever recorded anywhere (subsequent analysis showed that it was technically more than one tornado that dropped from the same quickly moving storm), 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 does not always go so well. Over the last few days, the death toll from some of the first severe tornadoes of the summer season (there are two tornado seasons) has reached over a dozen, and there has been quite a bit of damage.

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 very snowy 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 in the midwest from last year. 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 snuck up right behind ‘em, coming from the south! Tornadoes around here 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) The video refers to “Minneapolis” but Fridley is a couple of suburbs north of the city:

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

Of course, why worry about tornadoes, even to the extent of buying a dumb radio that will tell you when one is coming? After all, more people are killed by lightning every year than by tornadoes. Therefore, why worry about tornadoes at all (does this logic sound familiar?). But the thing is, the “weather radio” is for all sorts of weather and non-weather related events. I am, in fact, just as interested in golf-ball sized hail (one might want to move the car into the garage!) and hazardous cargo falling off the nearby heavily used railroad tracks, not to mention bridge collapses and nuclear power plant melt downs. These radios carry general emergency information, not just weather and not just tornadoes. And, there will be those who say “why worry” and to them, I say, “I’m not worried … I’m a blogger! I would feel really stupid if a tornado took out my neighborhood or a train load of bleach destroyed nearby Anoka or something and I didn’t have a blog post up about it right away.

______________________________

1Yes, I know, it can’t be Minnesota’s and national, and it can’t be a week if it’s a day. This is a small joke. Had to be there.

Comments

  1. #1 Athena
    April 15, 2011

    Excellent videos, especially the Fridley one. Tornadoes have always fascinated me…something about their capriciousness and power is intriguing. Instead of a weather radio, I have a police/fire/ambulance scanner. It picks up stormspotter reports as they radio in to the emergency base. It also has the weather service forecasts. I can hear the emergency personnel making the decision to activate the sirens and be in the basement even before they go off. After the storm has passed, the emergency folk go out and send back damage reports, which is helpful info too.

  2. #2 Athena
    April 15, 2011

    P.S. Growing up in MN, the rule was to open the south and west house windows to “equalize the pressure” if a tornado should hit. Like that would be of any help when your house has been flattened!

  3. #3 Lyle
    April 15, 2011

    Both Amazon and LLBean have radios that include a weather band, and can be cranked to provide energy to run the radio (also include a flashlight). Same (specific area message encoding) weather radios (turn on when the alarm is sounded for your area) are as you note available online and at radio shack as well.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 15, 2011

    S.A.M.E. is essential. It has to be able to turn on by itself if there’s an alert, but you really want to specify which alerts you want to get. There is not a perfect correlation between quality of signal and where you live, so some radios (which find the signal that is strongest and tune automatically to that one) will give you a less than optimal source of info.

  5. #5 HP
    April 16, 2011

    I’ve heard it said that if a hurricane is like an invading army, a tornado is like an escaped lunatic with a knife.

    I’ve seen the sky turn green; I’ve heard the sound of freight trains where there should be no freight trains. Then I run for shelter, and wait. So far I’ve been lucky.

  6. #6 daedalus2u
    April 16, 2011

    I once saw a video of the aftermath of a tornado where it has ripped asphalt up off of the surface of the road. Another reason to use concrete instead.

  7. #7 Art
    April 16, 2011

    IMO a dedicated ‘emergency’ radio is a fair investment for every family. The ability to act as a severe weather alert is a good feature to have. This allows it to monitor a weather frequency and activate itself automatically when the weather service send an alert to your area. Ir can be a pain to get awakened for a storm you might consider insignificant but one day it might save your family.

    The ability to use a hand crank and/or solar cells is good for longer term. Batteries are okay but you have to remember to change them out soy you don’t lose the radio when you most need it.

    Rechargeable batteries are nice but when the line power is down you need alternatives. An option to charge them off a car plug is good.

    The radio should pick up all the weather frequencies and get AM and FM. with all media out a little music is nice to keep the mind off the situation.

    Some radios come with a little LED light that has some utility because it can run off the hand crank. A nice little bit of reserve lighting when all else fails.

  8. #8 yogi-one
    April 17, 2011

    Of course, why worry about tornadoes, even to the extent of buying a dumb radio that will tell you! when one is coming?

    Because Tornadoes are awesome that’s why

  9. #9 Tony P
    April 17, 2011

    Luckily here in the northeast the only thing we really have to occasionally worry about is hurricanes. And fortunately those are easy to predict well ahead of time so there’s really no danger per se.

    But we do get little mini-tornadoes on the rare occasion too. They’re about powerful enough to tear a corner of a roof off, or knock a few bricks off a building but not enough to tear a wide swath of destruction across the city.

    But I do carry a Yaesu VX-7RB on me at all times. It’s a quad band amateur radio transceiver with a general coverage receiver that gets into the weather, aircraft and other bands through single function keys.

    Because as I like to tell people, the telephone networks be they wired or wireless are only at about a 4:1 ratio and can start blocking at relatively low levels making communication useless.

  10. #10 Tunderbar
    April 18, 2011

    These tornadoes could not possibly have been caused by global warming. The globe hasn’t warmed in 10 years. if anything, global temps have come down in the last ten years.