Weather Detectives and Tornado Chasers

“Recent research into our changing climate, and its effect on severe-storm activity in North America, is sobering yet inconclusive.”

—Brantley Hargrove, author of The Man Who Caught the Storm


24891922A couple years ago, I read the third novel in Robert Llewellyn’s News From book trilogy, News from the Clouds. Using real research on the trajectory of human invention and the state of the planet, Llewellyn’s series offers us three distinct yet entirely possible futures for our world 200 years from now. News from the Clouds depicts a world where the human race is housed in impenetrable boxes and flies above the clouds in massive blimps. This is because climate change has gotten so out of control that the world has heated up, the water has escaped, the plants and animals have died, and the wind storms are deadly. This book got me thinking a lot about the future of wind.


So, if wind is going to be a major issue in my future, my first questions are how much wind is too much wind, how do we measure it, and how do we prepare for it?

51gsswrR8pL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Peter Wohlleben’s new book, The Weather Detective, instructs the casual reader on how to read and make predictions about the weather (although there is some discussion of climate, too) without the help of your local meteorologist and without tools any fancier than a weather cock. The Weather Detective is the perfect pocket companion for outdoorsy types, from everyday gardeners to avid hikers to forest managers. If weather gets crazy in the future and I need to know how and when to deal with it, Peter Wohlleben is exactly the kind of person I want to be. Here, he teaches us about the Beaufort Scale, the measurement of wind force (the impact of the wind on everyday objects). He advises us:

  • Scale 6 (25-31 mph): You should secure garden furniture and potted plants, if they are not already fixed firmly in place.
  • Scale 8 (39-46 mph): It becomes dangerous to stand under a tree because dead branches can break off.
  • Scale 10 (55-63 mph): You’d better stay inside, as spruces and other tree species with weak root bases can be uprooted.


It sounds like the future people in News from the Clouds were experiencing at least a Scale 10 on a daily basis. Could this really be our future, too? Well, as Brantley Hargrove’s quote at the top of this article says, it’s inconclusive. The average global temperature is indeed going up, but that doesn’t mean the wind speed will go up in all places. Wind is largely caused by temperature difference. The Earth’s land is heating up faster than the oceans, so you can expect to see an increase of wind near the coast. On the other hand, the Arctic is heating up, so places where wind is caused by the temperature difference between the Arctic and the tropics, like northern mid-latitudes, will actually see a decrease in wind speed as a result of global warming.1 Although many countries, as well as some U.S. cities and states, have vowed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep that global temperature down, there are also plans in place to harness that extra wind in the form of wind power as a source of energy, should the level of wind continue to increase.2

The Flame Challenge, World Science Festival 2018

Last month, I went to NYU Skirball to watch Alan Alda lead a game show called The Flame Challenge, where adults and children competed to explain one topic so simply that an eleven-year-old could understand it. This year’s theme was climate. Here, we watched Michael Bronski and a giant penguin illustrate the difference between weather and climate, and we were introduced to a big purple tornado in a box. We learned–in terms simple enough so that an eleven-year-old could understand–that the fact that tornadoes are frequent in Tornado Alley is the area’s climate, but whether there is a tornado coming to said Alley today is its weather. As climates change due to global warming, how will this affect the weather in places like Tornado Alley? Let’s talk about wind strength that’s more powerful than the Beaufort Scale. Let’s talk tornadoes.

You may be familiar with the Fujita Scale. This is the wind speed scale you hear in reference to tornadoes. The lowest wind speed on the Fuijta Scale is 40 mph, which, according to Wohlleben, is already dangerous, and that’s considered an EF0 tornado. By the time you get up to an EF5, the strongest tornado, you’re looking at a devastating 261-318 mph! This, if you recall, is the tornado the storm chasers were after in the 90s film Twister.

Twister was inspired by a real life project called TOTO. It was a metal oil drum designed to take measurements inside the tornado’s core. You’ll recall the storm chasers in the film named their project Dorothy/DOT, another Wizard of Oz reference. I don’t know about you, but until recently, my knowledge of tornado chasing ended with the technology from Twister. Only recently did I find out what happened after TOTO. Better than the TOTO devices, legendary storm chaser (from the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers) Tim Samaras built cone-shaped detectors called “turtles,” designed to do much of the same thing that TOTO had failed to do. (TOTO’s story did not end like Twister‘s happy launch of DOT into the belly of the storm but was instead retired in 1987 after too many failed attempts.) At 45 pounds and with the perfect shape for staying put, a turtle could sit on the ground and measure core activity as a twister rolled over. Unfortunately, in 2013, one of Samaras’s attempts to lodge a turtle in the heart of a tornado got him too close to the danger zone. He, his son, and a fellow TWISTEX member were swept up and killed by the storm.

51ptQ3nrjbLA new book was published this year, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim SamarasAuthor Brantley Hargrove addresses the future of tornadoes given the changing climate:


“We know that as the oceans warm, increased rates of evaporation will flood the skies with elevated concentrations of moisture. This means more instability, more CAPE, more fuel for violent storms. But there are also studies that project an attendant decrease in wind shear. Tornadoes require converging air masses to form. Most climate scientists speculate that the result may be a lower overall number of tornadoes. But there’s an important catch: when the elements do align, the tornadoes and the outbreaks that result may be much, much worse. One analysis indicates that this is already happening. Two statisticians, Elizabeth Mannshardt of North Carolina State University, and Eric Gilleland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, recently compiled more than forty years’ worth of atmospheric soundings, focusing primarily on the two biggest supercell indicators: wind shear and CAPE. When they plotted tornadic storms over these years, what they found was alarming. The “return period,” or the average amount of time that elapses between a given extreme tornadic event, appears to be decreasing. In other words, the extremes are becoming less rare, a trend line that may well worsen. As case studies, Mannshardt and Gilleland examined two recent tornadic events: the May 20, 2013, Moore, Oklahoma, supercell, and the twister that claimed the lives of Tim, Carl, and Paul near El Reno. According to their analysis, these storms are exceedingly rare, situated somewhere near the outer edge of statistical probability. Historically, Moore should only see a tornado of that ferocity once every 400 years. But between 1999 and 2013, the city has been struck by two historic EF5 tornadoes and one EF4.”

There is still a lot to learn. The continued work of weather detectives and tornado chasers is invaluable. With a better understanding of what goes on in the core of a tornado, meteorologists would possibly be able to predict tornadoes sooner and more accurately, giving locals more time to get to a safe place. With a better understanding of how climate change will effect different areas of the country, from Tornado Alley to the coasts, citizens will be better prepared for the future, whether that means building an impenetrable box home or taking for the skies in massive blimps.


As a side note, if you are interested in watching tornadoes without actually venturing into the path of destruction, I recommend Camille Seaman’s new photo book, The Big Cloud.







Read more:
1Global warming will weaken wind power, study predicts (December 2017)
2Climate change could bring stronger winds, more wind power (May 2018)

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