As any Bear living in Kansas will tell you, Spring is Storm Season! Well, Spring and Fall both. Many people think that Kansas, and the Midwest in general, are just overrun with storms and twisters and craziness! But that’s not really the case…the news just seems to really highlight the incidents that do occur. I’m gonna tell you all about tornadoes and the crazy weather we have here, and share some safety tips for getting through scary weather!
First, you have to understand Kansas’ unlucky location. We are in what’s called “Tornado Alley”, and that just means that several of the middle states in America get all the icky weather.
And that is because we are all east of the Rocky Mountains. The cool, dry air from up around Canada and Alaska comes blowing down into America, from west to east, and runs right into the mountains. It has to kinda roll over the tall mountains, and comes spinning down onto the plains. But! While the cold air is rolling in from the Northwest, there is hot, dry air blowing up from the Southwest (think Arizona-ish desert, hot and dry)! But! There’s still more! Hot, wet air is bubbling up from the Southeast, a la the Gulf of Mexico. So…we have all these different types of air, all traveling towards the center of America, thanks to jet streams and normal Earthly wind currents.
All of these different types of air, hot and cold and wet and dry, smash into each other and they create instability in the atmosphere. A change in wind direction and an increase in wind speed with increasing height creates an invisible, horizontal spinning effect down near the ground. Rising air inside the updraft tilts the rotating air from horizontal (sideways) to vertical (upright). The next thing you know, you have a Tornado: a violent, rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground.
Tornadoes come in several different shapes, tall and thin or low and broad. They can form out of dust, (dust devils), or over water (water spouts). The most severe tornadoes can have winds of up to 300 miles per hour, and can travel touching land for 100 miles or more. But most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 100 miles per hour (161 kilometres per hour) and travel just few miles before exhausting themselves. In an average year, 1200 tornadoes are reported nationwide…the most of any country in the world.
Many people only hear about Tornadoes in terms of the severity. F2’s and F3’s…but what does that mean?!? In 1971, a man named Tetsuya Fujita created a scale for Tornadoes, based on the damage left behind. Back in the day, the only way to judge a Tornado’s strength was the aftermath…wind measurement and science had not advanced enough to study such dangerous things. The “Fujita Scale” goes from “F0 to F5”, and takes into account wind speed, with references to damage from those winds. The chart below lists it all…rating, wind speed, what kind of damage is expected. In 2007 though, the scale was rewritten. It is now called the “Enhanced Fujita Scale” and goes by “EF0-5”. The Enhanced Scale is more accurate about the wind speeds and damage around a Tornado, reflecting the updates in science, building codes, and storm understanding. Many states (and countries for that matter) still use the original scale, though.
So! That’s Tornadoes in a nut shell of very basic terms! We MidWesterners are very used to storm season, but that can be a bad thing. Several States have started public awareness campaigns to remind people to take storm warnings and blaring sirens seriously. There are two main types of Tornado (and Storm, for that matter) warnings: Watches and Warnings. Watches mean that Tornadoes are possible in your area and that you should stay tuned to the radio or television news. Warnings mean that a tornado is either on the ground or has been detected by Doppler radar, and that you should seek shelter immediately! Most cities and towns in America have Storm Sirens, and they will sound for warnings or if a Tornado has been spotted near that town. However, many sirens don’t work (due to aging infrastructure, budget concerns, whatever) and people in the country certainly can’t hear them. Also, many people (especially in Tornado Alley) have become so accustomed to hearing the sirens when the slightest rain cloud appears, that they don’t take sirens seriously! Many States have started Public Service Campaigns to remind people that danger is imminent.
When the sirens do sound, or the TV weatherman tells you to seek shelter, it’s time to move! Basements are always recommended, but many houses don’t have basements or cellars. In those cases, closets, bathrooms, or the lowest interior room in the house is supposed to be safest. Many structures, especially mobile and trailer homes, are especially dangerous during Tornadoes. It’s recommended that those people leave the place and seek shelter elsewhere. Many Trailer Parks in the MidWest have cement storm cellars somewhere on the property. The lightweight, thin-walled, poorly-anchored metal homes are no match for the high winds. Wherever you hide, you should try to get under sturdy furniture (in case of falling debris) or blankets/mattresses (in case of flying glass or debris), and hold on tight! You should always be careful when exiting a shelter, in case there are sharp debris laying around!
Many MidWesterners are also advised to keep an Emergency Kit handy. That’s got stuff like flashlights, some extra food and water, anything that you might need if the power is out or you have to leave your house for awhile. And you should always have a Disaster Plan with your family, in case you are seperated! Agree on where to meet if the kids are coming from school but you are coming from work, or pick a relative to have everyone touch base with if they are spread out. All of these things apply regardless of the situation, Tornado or Hurricane or Fire!
So, that is my blog all about Tornadoes and living here in Kansas during Storm Season! Some of my details came from Wikipedia and weatherwhizkids.com, but most of it is just known around here. I hope that next time you hear about a Tornado-ravaged town on the news, you will have a better understanding about what happened and how!