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Southerners and Midwesterners know tornadoes intimately. I think all of us have had a close call or worse at one point or another. I've had the honor of blogging from the bathtub at least once the night we had 8 tornado warnings and a funnel cloud went directly overhead. Many people who don't experience tornado warnings regularly, if at all, have questions they may think are silly or may be too shy to ask. Don't! They're valid questions to ask. Here are a few I've seen over the last few days.

Why do people keep talking about "May 3rd?"

Rachel Maddow just did a really good segment on that. Some dates have specific meaning to certain people. Just saying "9/11" or "September 11th" is enough for everyone to know you're talking about the terrorist attacks in 2001. April 15th will be synonymous with the Boston bombing for those personally affected by the disaster.

To Oklahomans and people who intently follow the weather world, May 3rd refers to the massive F5 tornado that struck Moore, OK on May 3 1999. This tornado was immense. It was over a mile wide, destroyed vast swaths of several cities in Oklahoma, and killed 36 people. A Doppler On Wheels (weather radar on the back of a flatbed truck) measured a 318 MPH wind in the tornado just a few feet off the ground. To this day, the May 3rd tornado in Moore OK remains the strongest tornado ever recorded.

This tornado, while not as strong, is consistently billed by residents of the area as "worse than May 3rd." The damage path from Monday's tornado is smaller and more narrow than the one in 1999, but both were comparably intense.

Why didn't people just evacuate, like they do before hurricanes?

Hurricane watches are issued 48-72 hours before the storm is expected to hit land. We can see it approaching land on satellite. We have fairly reliable weather models telling us where it will hit within a few dozen miles. We know about how strong the hurricane will be when it hits. We can reasonably guess what large swaths of coastline will experience when the storm makes landfall.

Tornado watches are issued 2-4 hours before storms are expected to develop. We have a reasonable idea where storms will develop, but we don't how severe they'll get. We don't know exactly where tornadoes will form, if they form at all. We don't know exactly how strong the tornadoes will be when they hit. We don't know exactly where the tornadoes will hit.

3.4 million people were under that tornado watch yesterday, and that was just one of the tornado watches issued:

By the end of the day, a huge chunk of the middle of the country was under a tornado watch at the same time. That's approximately 16.3 MILLION people.

The logistics of evacuating that large of an area for a short period of time over a weather phenomenon that may or may not happen is silly. Tornado watches aren't like hurricane watches. Tornadoes impact city blocks. The only thing you can do is get out of its way -- either on the ground or below it.

Why didn't people outrun the tornado?

Some did. Some do. Some always will. The appropriateness of outrunning a tornado depends wildly on how big it is, how close it is, and how well you know your escape routes in relation to the tornado's direction.

Upon seeing helicopter footage of how large and dangerous this tornado was, KFOR, a news station in Oklahoma City, advised people to leave their homes and try to flee the area if they couldn't get to an underground shelter.

It's very dangerous to try to outrun a tornado. With a tornado this intense, one's best bet might be to outrun it if he or she can't get underground. It's strongly advised, however, to get to an interior room (like a closet or bathroom) if you can't get underground. If you get trapped in your car in the tornado, you're done for.

Why doesn't everyone have a basement or underground shelter? It is Oklahoma, after all.

I don't live anywhere near Oklahoma, but folks who live there say that the soil is very unfavorable for underground structures. I saw someone say that the soil is mostly red clay, which expands and contracts and shifts and makes it hard for basement walls to hold up. I saw someone else say that the bedrock is extremely expensive to break through and build in/on.

There are prefabricated steel storm shelters (essentially, steel boxes that go into the ground), but they're expensive. We're talking thousands upon thousands of dollars. Many people, regardless of where they live, can't afford that.

Why don't these people just move out of the area?

Why don't you just pick up and move? Living anywhere has inherent risks. Living in California puts you at risk for earthquakes and wildfires. Florida is an invitation for hurricane damage. Northern Minnesota means having to endure brutal cold for months on end. Living in Oklahoma means having to deal with severe weather, including tornadoes.

The odds of dying in a tornado are 1 in 60,000. The odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 84. You're better off giving up driving than you are moving away from a place like Oklahoma because you're afraid of a tornado.

How much warning did they have?

The National Weather Service issued the first tornado warning for Moore 40 minutes (!!!) before the tornado struck the city. The first tornado warning was issued at 240PM.  A tornado emergency -- enhanced wording added to a tornado warning when a violent tornado is confirmed on the ground -- was issued at 301PM. The tornado struck Moore at 320PM.

The average lead time (time before a storm hits) for NWS warnings is 15 minutes. This tornado was warned 2.5x faster than average. That's impressive.

The main issue in tornado warnings isn't on the forecaster side, but on the public actually getting the warning. Warnings are disseminated over TV and radio through announcers and the Emergency Alert System. Cell phone apps like iMapWeather Radio (links: iPhone and Android), and text messaging services provided by local news stations, warn people on their mobile devices that severe weather is imminent. Even unreliable tornado sirens help warn people ahead of time.

The best form of warning comes through a programmable weather radio, which I discussed in detail a few years ago.

Why didn't the schools have better plans/shelters/construction?

Modern school buildings, like the ones struck in Oklahoma yesterday, are built with cinder block embedded with steel rebar. They can withstand some tornado winds, but not a 210 MPH EF-5 tornado. Nothing but a specially built tornado shelter can stand up to that.

Schools teach students go go into interior hallways and crouch against the walls in the "duck and cover" position. In suburban Virginia where I went to school, we had 2 tornado drills per year. I'm sure they have just as many, if not more, in Oklahoma.

These folks knew what to do when the tornado warning was issued. It's a matter of the school not standing up to 210 MPH winds. Maddow had an excellent report on tonight's show about community storm shelters, 'safe rooms', in communities and schools, but it's not online yet. I suggest you search for it later and watch it.

I'm kinda curious. How do you die in a tornado?

The most common cause of death in a tornado is a traumatic blow to the head. Debris is flying around twice as fast as highway traffic. Even something as small as a can of soda or piece of glass could penetrate or rupture your skull and kill you. That's why protecting your head is the most important part of tornado safety. One of the big revelations that came out of the April 27 2011 outbreak in Alabama is that people who wore bicycle/motorcycle helmets had a better survival rate than those who didn't.

Also, people get caught in their cars and die on impact. Some people have the misfortune of getting sucked into the air and hitting the ground. It's not a painless, quick thing. It's traumatic and you know it's happening.

The injuries are pretty horrific, too. There's a reason you never see the "walking wounded" reporters talk about. They're missing pieces of their body, they're impaled by debris, it's just...not pretty.


Alex Jones is pushing the weather modification conspiracy theory, that the government has total and complete control over the weather and that the Oklahoma tornado was not a random thing.

Anyone who believes in these conspiracy theories are too goddamn lazy to want to understand science, so they jump to the first thing their imagination comes up with. Let's review:

  • HAARP: HAARP is a high powered antenna array in Alaska run by the Air Force, used to study how the ionosphere (tippy top of the atmosphere) affects high powered radio communications. Conspiracy theorists latched onto this "secret" array (it's so secret that we have pictures of it!) and say that the government uses it to shoot high powered beams of energy into the atmosphere to control every little bit of weather that happens. It's bull.
  • Chemtrails: Contrails, or condensation trails, are lines of water vapor left behind the by the moist exhaust of high-flying jet airplanes. Conspiracy theorists say that they're really chemicals released by the government to make us sick and/or control the weather. Hogwash. They appear in coordinated grids because that's how airplanes fly so they don't run into each other and explode. Derp.
  • Weather radar: A select few nutjobs say that weather radars control weather, and the proof lies in "anomalies" such as flocks of birds and the solar radiation from the sunset messing with the radar beam.

The government can't even pass a budget. Do you really think they can create an EF-5 tornado to purposely destroy a city? Get real, and pick up a science book you gullible fool.

This was because of climate change! Right?

We don't know. Climate scientists have had a hard time linking tornadoes to climate change. Tornadoes are too small-scale and their ingredients are too widespread to be able to pin outbreaks on climate change. As reported in the link a few sentences back, in its evaluation of the April 27 2011 tornado outbreak, NOAA reported the following:

A change in the mean climate properties that are believed to be particularly relevant to major destructive tornado events has thus not been detected for April, at least during the last 30 years. So far, we have not been able to link any of the major causes of the tornado outbreak to global warming.
The link also mentions an IPCC report that says the following:
There is low confidence in projections of small spatial-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail because competing physical processes may affect future trends and because current climate models do not simulate such phenomena.
Essentially, we don't know if tornadoes are linked to climate change yet. They're too small scale and the ingredients that have to come together perfectly to create them don't show a trend. Harold Brooks of NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory was on MSNBC tonight and said that, while climate change will likely result in more thunderstorms, vertical wind shear (a crucial component of tornadic development) will actually decrease as the climate warms, making it harder for tornadoes to form.

The intensity of tornadoes increasing or decreasing is hard to measure. We've heard about highly rated tornadoes on the Enhanced Fujita scale lately because tornadoes are hitting populated areas more often. Frankly, we're more spread out and densely populated than we were 20 or 30 years ago. Meteorologists rate tornadoes based on the damage they produce. If they hit an open field or crops, there's nothing to measure to rate the damage. The former Governor of Oklahoma was on MSNBC this afternoon and said that the neighborhoods that got hit in Moore were open fields a few decades ago. Urban sprawl plays a big part in tornadoes getting higher EF-scale ratings, simply because there's more things for them to hit, and more damage for us to measure.

Climate change is real and happening. Hurricanes will get more intense. Heavy rainfall will increase in occurrence. The planet and its oceans are getting warmer and the ice caps are melting. But, as of right now, we don't know if climate change is causing tornadoes. It's possible, but the science isn't there to back it up yet.

I live in __. I'm safe, right?

No. Well, let me rephrase that. Some areas get less tornadoes than others, but tornadoes have been reported in all 50 states. You just have to pay attention to weather reports, especially when severe weather is possible.

Anymore questions? Ask away. If I can't answer them (and I probably can't), someone else will.

Originally posted to El Blogo de Weatherdudeo on Tue May 21, 2013 at 08:48 PM PDT.

Also republished by Science Matters.

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