Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Weather with a Twist

Storm-cellar time. Courtesy:
Many years ago, when I was living in South Carolina, a tornado ripped through the capitol city of Columbia one night. I lived about six blocks away from where it had done its damage. Wanting to see what happened, I grabbed my press card and rushed down to the business district where the spout had touched down. The electrical lines were strewn on the ground in a tangled mess and the fire department was cordoning off the area. There were only a few blocks affected, but it looked like a bomb had exploded. The store windows were blown out and debris was everywhere. Fortunately, no one lived in the business district, so there were no injuries or deaths. As we have seen recently, people who live in areas hit by tornadoes are not always that lucky.

Americans generally feel like they’ve cornered the market on tornadoes, but the fact is that they happen almost everywhere.
  • Tornadoes have been reported on every continent except Antarctica, which does not have the needed contrast between warm and cold air together with the humid air needed for thunderstorms to form, according to the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) in the United Kingdom
  • Europe has 300 or more tornadoes a year, according to a study by Nikolai Dotzek, a scientist with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Wessling, Germany
  • The United Kingdom has the most tornadoes of any European country, about 33 per year, according to TORRO. That number jumps to 50 when unreported tornadoes are added, making the United Kingdom the world’s leader in tornadoes based on number of twisters per area of land
  • Germany has about 10 observed tornadoes a year: a category F-5 tornado, with wind speeds of 261 to 308 mph, happens every 150 years; an F-3 tornado, with wind speeds of 158 to 206 mph, happens every 40 to 50 years
  • Large tornadoes have ravaged Europe in recent years. One smashed its way through Bognor Regis in southern England on Oct. 28, 2000, causing $7 million in damage and injuring four people. Europe’s most destructive tornado tore through the German town of Pforzheim in July 1968, causing $25 million in damage and killing two people
  • There is a practical reason for the limited damage caused by European twisters. European houses are built of brick and stone, which can resist tornadoes better than the wood frame houses or trailer homes found in the U.S.
  • In Asia, tornadoes have been reported in India, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Even in Japan, the tatsu maki has been reported
  • In Australia, the “cockeyed bob” is reported about 20 times every year. That figure may be much higher because many storms occur in uninhabited areas. Strong tornadoes are very rare but do happen
  • In South America, they have been reported in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina
  • The United States is the world leader when it comes to number of tornadoes with roughly 1,400 per year. The majority of tornadoes occur in "Tornado Alley,"which includes Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. They typically happen from April through June, but May is the busiest month. In 2003, a flurry of funnels in May set a record, with about 400 recorded in seven days
  • In both Europe and the United States, about 75 percent of the tornadoes are weak, about 22 percent are strong, and 3 percent are violent. But with fewer tornadoes in Europe, it takes longer for a violent tornado to appear and cause the type of damage seen so often in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas
  • Variation in tornado frequency between the United States and Europe can be attributed to Europe's higher latitude. Boston is on roughly the same latitude as Madrid, Spain. Oklahoma City is almost directly west of the Strait of Gibraltar. The sharp angle of the sun’s rays striking Europe inhibits their ability to heat air to the degree needed to create prime tornado conditions. Plus, the landscape of Europe changes quickly from mile to mile — from hills to river valleys and back to hills, which weakens storms. This is unlike America’s midsection, where the terrain is flat and featureless for hundreds of miles 
Not a sight you want to see out your kitchen window. Courtesy:

  • Flatlands like those in the Netherlands have twice as many tornadoes as the much larger countries of France and Germany. The level Dutch landscape is more similar to that in America’s breadbasket 
Tornadoes are so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that we have made movies about them ranging from fantasies about a girl name Dorothy in Kansas to modern-day storm chasers. Technology can do remarkable things, but it is impotent against a mile-wide spout suctioning through a swathe of land. The power of the Earth and its swirling atmosphere places how small we truly are in its proper perspective.


  1. Interesting article! I enjoy the variety of topics on your blog ;)

    I was about to post that tornadoes in the Netherlands are extremely rare, but I was wrong.
    Correcting for surface area, they occur twice as frequent here in the Netherlands than in, for example, Oklahoma.

    The catch is of course that these tornadoes are much weaker, and in the dutch language they are not referred to as tornadoes, but as a mere 'windhoos' (English: landspout).

    There is one famous real tornado incident in the 17th century, that homed in on a church and separated the church tower from its nave. Due to budgetary problems, it was never repaired, and now looks like this:

  2. Thank you for the comment--and it is nice to hear from you! Am I correct in seeing that the tower is sitting in front of the church rather than on top?

  3. That's right, the part between the tower and the remainder of the church has been blown away by the tornado!

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