Anybody who grew up in the Midwest is familiar with the threat of tornadoes, but why are tornadoes so prevalent in the American Midwest and not other places in the world? Today we talk with Pecos Hank to learn what causes tornadoes to form and why the United States gets way more of them than anywhere else in the world.
A few months back, I did a video on supervolcanoes and how there’s actually several of them around the world that could really mess things up if they decide to go boom. Luckily they don’t go boom that often. A few months back, I did a video on supervolcanoes and how there’s actually several of them around the world that could really mess things up if they decide to go boom. Luckily they don’t go boom that often.
But when they do go boom, they’re a lot more likely to go boom here in North America.
Because yeah for some reason, half of the active supervolcanoes that we know of are in North America. (react) What’s that about?
It might be because of how the Pacific plate is colliding with the North American plate, it might be a convergence of large igneous masses deep down underneath the plate… Maybe it’s just bad luck.
Or maybe… planet Earth has it out for us.
The last option is probably unlikely since we’re so small and the planet is so not a conscious being but if the Earth did have it out for us, the supervolcanoes probably wouldn’t be the best proof of that.
Because like I said before, they don’t go boom that often, but something that does happen often, hundreds of times a year actually – is tornadoes.
They too are a destructive force, and they, too, happen more often in North America. And not by a little bit either, like, a LOT more often.
So yeah… What’s that about?
Maybe make a comparison to the supervolcanoes video where a surprising number of them are in North America
Growing up in Texas, tornadoes are just part of life. We had tornado drills in school, the local weather guy was a freakin hero, and we all know the panic in your chest when you hear that tornado siren go off.
And we all grew up hearing stories about… The Big One.
Where I grew up, the Big One was Terrible Tuesday.
Also known as the Red River Valley Tornado Outbreak, this was a storm system that formed on April 10th 1979 that spawned 59 tornadoes over the next two days, including two F4 tornadoes, one of which cut a mile and a half mile wide swath through the center of Wichita Falls Texas that killed 42 people and caused $400 million in damage.
This event left a giant scar on the psyche of that whole area for decades. Growing up around there, you always knew that nature was in control, and every storm had the potential to go sideways and ruin your life.
And if you grew up in Texas or the Midwest, you probably grew up with a similar “Big One” story that scared the bejeezus out of you.
I actually think it’s funny when I hear Texas friends say they wouldn’t want to live in California because of the earthquakes. And I’m like, “Okay but here the sky might eat your house.”
Anyway, I kinda realized at some point that all the major tornadoes I’ve ever heard of were in the United States. Like I’ve never heard of a tornado in Europe in my entire life.
And any European friends I’ve asked about it kinda just shrug their shoulders, like, “I guess it happens sometimes.”
So that’s kinda what led to this video, what is it about the United States that seems to just attract tornadoes like sailors to your mom?
Turns out it’s all about geography, which to be clear there are tornadoes all around the world but they do happen much more often and are much stronger here in the US. In general, it is a US-specific problem.
So, put on your ruby slippers and click them three times as we get caught up in a whirlwind of tornado knowledge. So, put on your ruby slippers and click them three times as we get caught up in a whirlwind of tornado knowledge.
How They Form
But first, we have to understand how tornadoes form and what conditions make them possible.
(over text screen and tornado footage)Every tornado is different, but generally there are some common factors that lead to them forming.
These include:- Abundant low-level moisture, which contributes to thunderstorm development- A “trigger,” such as a cold front or low-level zone of converging winds, to help lift the moist air up .
This rising moist air can create spinning vortices at the back of the updraft.
And from there, it does get a little tricky so I enlisted the help of Hank Schyma, also known as Pecos Hank here on YouTube. He’s a tornado chaser and photographer who has been studying tornadoes for decades
Basically these vortices get strengthened by the rising and falling of hot and cold air, and as it speeds up, it’s drawn inward toward its axis of rotation.
This is similar to how figure skaters spin faster by drawing in their arms. It’s called conservation of angular momentum.
So you’ve got this spinning horizontal column of air low to the ground, and all it takes is a strong gust of wind to tilt it vertically in the storm. Now you’ve got a funnel cloud.
If this funnel cloud touches the ground, it becomes a tornado.
While most tornadoes form from supercell thunderstorms, not all supercells produce them.
If the spinning air near the ground is cold, it will instead spread away from the storm along the ground, like a figure skater with extended arms, and no tornado will form.
But even if a tornado does form, they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, eventually we needed a way to measure them. Enter the Fujita Scale.
The F Scale(over pic)Dr. Tetsuya Theodore Fujita at the University of Chicago developed a scale with Alen Pearson from the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in 1971 to help measure a tornado’s wind speeds and the damage it may leave behind.
But the Fujita Scale, or F Scale, it was very limited, and was mostly about how much damage the storm inflicted. But it lacked three things – No account for construction quality and variability- No definitive correlation between damage and wind speed- A lack of damage indicators
A group of meteorologists and wind engineers got together in 2007 and came up with a new scale, the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
It has 28 damage indicators, like building types, structures, and trees.
Each damage indicator has eight degrees of damage, from barely visible damage to complete destruction.
And they changed the wind speed ranges, for example, an EF-3 tornado’s windspeed is between 218 and 266 kilometers per hour (136 and 165 miles per hour). An F3 tornado would’ve been between 254 and 332 kph (158-206 mph).
The EF Scale ranges from EF-0 (light damage) to EF-5 (incredible damage), and by the way, all EF-5 tornadoes recorded to date were in the United States. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a minute.
But that brings us back to the original question, why here? Why does the sky have it out for North America?
I mean there’s an area in the flat plains of the Midwest that’s actually called Tornado Alley.
Well, remember how I said the updraft of warm air into a supercell and the downdraft of cool air create vortices in the clouds that eventually spiral into tornadoes?
Well right here in the heartland, there’s geologically nothing between here and the tundra up in Canada. So you get cold air coming down from that direction and from below, you have warm moist air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s just this perfect spot with mountain ranges on both sides, funneling warm and cold air together on a flat plain, mixing and swirling it up, causing a rumble.
But interestingly, tornado alley seems to be shifting. Don’t get me wrong, Oklahoma and Texas are still the place you wanna be if you want to get impaled on a roadsign, but there seems to be an interesting trend toward the southern states.
According to Victor Gensini, an associate professor in the department of geographic and atmospheric science at Northern Illinois University, “Basically, over the last 50 years, if you live in a place like Dallas, your chance of a tornado there has gradually gone down,” But if you’re in a place like Birmingham, Alabama, or Memphis, Tennessee, your threat has gone way up.”
Part of it could just be chalked up to better reporting, but it’s possible that rising temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico is causing weather patterns to shift.
While it might be too soon to blame climate change, there are some climate models that predicted this, and the they will start forming earlier and later than they used to.
Tornadoes Around the World
But yeah, this particular geography is why, according to the Storm Prediction Center the US has around 1200 tornadoes each year.
In Europe, it’s more like 200 and 400 tornadoes every year, with Greece and Italy getting the most. Both have dry air coming down over the mountains and mixing with warm moist air from the Mediterranean.
The U.K. also sees between 30 and 50 tornadoes each year, which interestingly is more tornadoes across an average land area than anywhere else in the world.
South America gets its share of tornadoes, in fact they have their own tornado alley that stretches across parts of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Once again, flat land between mountains and sea where their air masses meet.
And last but not least is Bangladesh, sandwiched between the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayan Mountains.
Remember earlier when I said that almost all F5 tornadoes were recorded in the United States, with one big exception? That exception just happened to be the deadliest tornado of all time. And it happened here.
It’s called the Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado, and it took place on April 26, 1989. It was a massive F5 tornado that tore through a densely populated area and killed 1,300 people, more than twice as much as the second deadliest tornado.
That was the infamous Tri-State Tornado from March 18, 1925, that went 219 miles (352 kilometer) across Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri, making it the longest in world history.
It killed 695 people, injured more than 2,000, and 15,000 homes were destroyed.https://www.thoughtco.com/worlds-worst-tornadoes-3555048
Tornadoes have occurred in the Middle East, but that’s rare.
Big countries like Australia, China, and Russia have more land for tornadoes to touch down. These places also have regions like the U.S. midwest where tornadoes happen more frequently.
And you might have heard that tornadoes rotate in a different direction in the Southern Hemisphere, and that’s actually true.
Generally tornadoes spin counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. Though, not always, sometimes they do spin in the opposite direction, those are called anticyclonic tornadoes.
Tornadoes on Other Planets and Moons
So tornadoes do happen all over the world. But what about other worlds?
Like we’ve seen dust devils on Mars, which are kinda like the desert tornadoes that we have on Earth, but with only 1% of our atmosphere, they don’t pack much of a punch.
But Jupiter, that’s just covered with storms and swirling eddies that might qualify as a tornado. then of course there’s the big red eye on Jupiter which is similar to a hurricane here on Earth. It measures around 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) across.
It does seem to be shrinking though. But still. Easily the biggest cyclonic storm in the solar system.
Saturn also has massive storms that extend more than 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) and wrap around almost the entire planet.
And then there’s that strange, permanent hexagon of clouds at the poles so… Hexagonal tornado?
Other Types of Tornadoes and Weird Tales
Speaking of dust tornadoes, there are also fire tornadoes and waterspouts.
Fire tornadoes, or fire whirls to be more accurate, often occur during large-scale wildfires.
They’re not true tornadoes, though. They’re vortices that suck up combustible materials and gases.
Waterspouts are similar to land-based tornadoes. They can suck fish, frogs, and other small marine life out of the water and carry them up to a cloud that will then deposit them onto land.
This happened just recently in Texarkana when residents noticed a bunch of small fish in their yards and streets after a storm.
Strange events and tall tales emerge after tornadoes pass through. Some of these include
– A house was destroyed but a cake on the counter was left unmoved along with stacked dishes in the cupboard over the sink (true).
– A house was picked up and placed in the middle of a street (true).
– Photographs were carried more than 100 miles.
– A piece of straw was embedded into a tree trunk (likely false).
If you’re ever in a tornado situation, there are some things to do to keep you safe.
First, a tornado watch means a tornado is possible. A tornado warning means they’ve identified that rotational motion so a tornado is already happening or is about to occur. This is when you should go to a safe place immediately.
The worst thing you can do is get in your car and try to drive away from it. You will not outrun it and it can toss your car around like it’s nothing.
The best thing you can do is find a place in your home, if you have a basement or storm cellar, those are the best options, if you don’t have that, you want to find an interior room with no windows, preferably on the lowest floor.
If you can quickly grab a mattress to cover yourselves, that can help protect against flying debris.
If you’re in a high-rise building, choose a hallway in the building’s center on the lowest floor you can get to.
If you’re in a mobile home… Go anywhere else.
Find a nearby sturdy building or even a culvert and get as low to the ground as possible. Mobile homes are like the worst possible place to be in a tornado.
Most importantly if you live in Tornado Alley, make a plan, be ready for when the time comes, and if you need a little motivation for that… just listen to the story from this lady who survived the 1979 Terrible Tuesday tornado:
So yeah… Stay safe out there.
But I’ll put this to you guys, have any of you survived a tornado? Have any crazy tornado stories to share? Let’s hear it in the comments.