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Earth Sense: Tornadoes don’t always follow patterns

POSTED: October 20, 2013 12:50 a.m.

People in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota aren’t unfamiliar with tornadoes. But during the night of Oct. 4, well outside severe weather season, a dozen strong tornadoes ripped across the Great Plains.

Fortunately, no deaths were reported, but the F1 twisters, just one notch above the weakest category, were strong enough to destroy homes in Pierson, Iowa. One got strong enough to reach F2 status, but found only agricultural equipment to mangle.

The heaviest action was seen in Wayne, Neb. Reports of a funnel 2 miles wide were confirmed by the videos now on YouTube.com. For comparison, the F4 tornado causing deaths and terrible wreckage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011, tore a path 1« miles wide. With 170 mph winds, the Nebraska tornado too earned an F4 classification, traveling 19 miles through Wayne County.

Besides on-ground and airborne video, detailed photosets are also appearing on many Web pages. When you look at them carefully, they confirm some points that weather experts have been making for years.

First, there’s the myth about opening windows to prevent the house from exploding. One photo shows an elderly lady’s living room in Bennet, Neb., with the roof completely gone but walls and windows intact. The house did not explode. Patterns of debris after a violent twister often lead people to believe in the explosion theory. But if a child’s stray soccer ball can break window glass, so can a tornado.

Another picture shows a woman sorting through her completely destroyed kitchen. In the background, the only structures left standing are the walls of an interior hallway. It confirms that in the absence of a basement, small rooms near the center of the house offer the best chance of survival.

At 1,453 feet above sea level, Wayne, Neb., is at a similar elevation as Gainesville. But the area is completely flat, with no tall ridges to break the advance of severe storms. Absence of mountains between the Great Plains and the Arctic is the main reason for the violent battle of cold and warmer air in that part of the country.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee of safety behind a ridge, either. The F2 tornado that hit Helen on Aug. 30, 2005, came down the ridge at Alpenrosen Strasse and damaged buildings along Ga. 75. All these events show that tornadoes don’t respect seasonal and geographic boundaries.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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