On What We Do (And Dont) Understand About Tornadoes ‹ Literary Hub


My son picks up a flat package that arrived in the mail. He can tell its a book and wants me to open it. I dont think its for you, I say warily. I open the package and hand him the thin blue volume. Its a history book, I hedge.

He flips through ithe cant readand immediately finds an illustration showing a twisting cloud beneath a dark sky. Its a tornado, he says with surprise, and continues flipping through the pages as I admit, lamely, Yes, its a history book about tornadoes.

He finds a drawing of devastation in Illinois in 1883its a field of broken boards, with a locomotive in the distanceand another showing crumbled buildings from 1882. Then he reaches the end of the book and looks at the final page number, which says 90. Theres really more like 93 or 94 pages, because the pages with the pictures dont have numbers, he remarks. He hands me the book and walks away.

Tornadoes: What They Are and How to Escape Them was published in 1888 by the pioneer of scientific tornado studies, John Finley. He was a meteorologist with the Army Signal Service who gathered accounts of some six hundred tornadoes so that he could compile basic information, such as when and where they occurred. The mystery of the tornado cloud has been swept away as the result of prolonged and thorough investigation, he wrote, with admirable can-do spirit.

I find myself warming to him. Finley notes that the tornadic disturbance is as old as the world itself, if we are to believe that the appearance of the atmosphere was coincident with the creation of the Earth, and cites descriptions of tornadoes that go back centuries. In 1762, for example, near Charleston, South Carolina, one tornado arrived resembling a large column of smoke and vapor rushing over the earth with prodigious velocity, destroying everything in its path. Going back even further, God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.

The destructive power of a tornado, I have learned, has nothing to do with its appearance.

Finley was the first meteorologist to have the audacity to take these storms on as his lifes work, living as he did in the nation that has the highest frequency of tornadoesalthough, it should be said, the United Kingdom has more tornadoes relative to its land mass than any other country. His writings are chock-full of facts and bold assertions (everything from the etymology of the word tornado, which comes from the Latin tornare, to turn, to the necessity for tornado insurance).

Even though he handed out scientifically dubious advice (under no circumstances, whether in a building or a cellar, ever take a position in a northeast room, in a northeast corner, in an east room or against an east wall), he also strongly urged people to build tornado caves, saying that shelter underground was the only place safe from a tornados fury. He pointed out that his proposal had been ridiculed by people who found the idea of cowering in a hole undignified. There is nothing to prevent any man from attempting the construction of a tornado-proof building or cage, something that will be aboveground and possess both strength and architectural beauty, he wrote wryly, but I venture to assert that the man who thus essays to grapple with the tornado on its own ground will not be one of the genus homo who has actually experienced a genuine twister.

On an experimental basis, Finley began issuing tornado predictions in 1884. But by 1887, the word tornado was banned from weather forecasts. The Report of the Chief Signal Officer stated that it is believed that the harm done by such a prediction would eventually be greater than that which results from the tornado itself because of the panic that would ensue. The Weather Bureau Stations Regulations of 1905 stated, Forecasts of tornadoes are prohibited. The restriction remained in place until 1938, according to historian Marlene Bradford, who wrote that forecasters employed euphemisms such as severe local storms or, rarely, conditions are favorable for destructive local storms.

I have no doubt what Finley would have thought of this. When I reach page 90 of his short but passionate volumethe final page number that, as my son pointed out, is not technically accurateI read the words he wrote long ago: Nothing is gained by trying to conceal the truth. Such a course begets indifference and negligence, which must eventually result in great evil.


My son is going upstairs to bed with his father, and turns to me to say, I am worried about tornadoes. I glance out the window and reply, I think youre okay for tonight, the weather is looking good. He pauses and says, stammering a bit, Nell…what is the symbol of a tornado?

The symbol of a tornado. What could he possibly be talking about? Then I understand and say, You mean like on the weather report, what kind of picture do they use to show that there might be tornadoes? Right, he says, I know they have a sun, and clouds with lightning, and snowflakes, but what do they use for a tornado? I tell him I have never seen a forecast for a tornado so I have no idea if meteorologists have a symbol for tornadoes, but if they did, then I imagine it would look like a little corkscrew. Did I mention I have never, in my entire life, seen a tornado? I say. Satisfied, he goes upstairs.

Secretly, though, I have been looking at photographs of tornadoes. And even though I would have automatically and unthinkingly described them as funnel clouds, storm chasers use much more descriptive terms like cones, wedges, elephant trunks, needles, drill bits, stovepipes, and hourglasses.

Photographs of tornadoes can be beautiful, but theyve also historically been essential for scientists, because the way that tornadoes touch down and disappear makes them a difficult phenomenon to study. The first good estimate of the wind speed inside a tornado, for example, came in the 1950s, when a researcher tracked the movement of debris, frame by frame, in a movie that someone filmed of a tornado that hit Dallas, Texas. By looking at the distance traveled by the debris over time, he was able to estimate that wind speeds must have been as high as 170 miles per hour.

What is believed to be the first photograph of a tornado can be found in the archives of the Kansas State Historical Society. Described as a long rope of purplish colored cloud, this twister touched down west of the town of Garnett in 1884 and was slow moving enough for a local fruit farmer and amateur photographer to set up his old-fashioned equipment. I study the photo.

Theres an unpaved street, wooden houses, and, in the distance, a trail of what would almost look like smoke going to the sky. But the trail looks smeared, apparently touched up by the photographer. Photographers back then commonly enhanced their photos in this way, but I cant fathom why, having obtained the first precious photographic evidence of a tornado, anyone would mess with it. Did the cloud look disappointingly insubstantial, somehow insufficiently terrible? The destructive power of a tornado, I have learned, has nothing to do with its appearance.

And what strikes me is that even though we all have a mental image of a tornado, and even though we now have all these photos and videos, even the experts dont always understand what theyre looking at.

In his memoir Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains, scientist Howard Bluestein describes his early experiences with storm chasing in the late 1970s. He was wild to see his first tornado. One hazy late afternoon, his team was driving down a paved road when the silhouette of a huge cylinder crossed the road in front of them. It didnt look like any of the photographs of tornadoes I had ever seen, most of which looked like an elephants trunk, Bluestein wrote. Was this a real tornado, my first? The cloud cylinder was rotating, but he thought it might just be a wall cloud, a layer of cloud that extends down from a cumulonimbus but doesnt touch the ground, unlike the tornadoes it can spawn.

After this mysterious apparition passed, he and his colleagues checked its path. They found downed power lines, trees with torn limbs, and a house missing a roof. Finally, Bluestein was convinced hed seen a tornadobut the sight of the damage left him queasy.

What strikes me is that…even the experts dont always understand what theyre looking at.

One of the most notorious tornadoes ever was the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado of May 31, 2013. (Tornadoes invariably take the identity of the place they ravaged, and the date.) It was a violent, multi-vortex maelstrom more than 2 miles across, with rotating winds of 300 miles per hour. This huge, unusually erratic tornado made sudden turns, expanded rapidly within seconds, and kept changing speed, at one point racing across the landscape at 55 miles per hour.

It killed three well-known tornado scientiststhe first deaths from professional storm chasingand inspired much soul-searching among storm watchers, who have compiled videos of this monster taken from all directions. Some of the footage shows a swirling mass of darkness that fills the entire sky. Id be hard-pressed to identify any part of this churning storm as the tornado.

And Im not the only one. Veteran storm chaser Skip Talbot, who wrote a long account of the El Reno tornado on his website, described how he waited for flashes of lightning that let him glimpse the funnel cloud. At one point he thought it was safely a couple of miles away. I had no idea of the scale of what I was looking at, or the immediate danger that it represented, he wrote. Just then his partner noticed something odd about the rain immediately in front of them. I paused a moment to watch it. The bands were careening at high speed from left to right. The huge column of rain shrouding what I thought was the tornado was rotating, and it was rotating at the speed of a tornado. The realization sunk in that the entire column of rain shrouding the funnel WAS THE TORNADO. They scrambled into their car and sped off, with the spinning storm following close behind, and at times gaining on them.

In the end, the El Reno tornado just disappeared. They all do. A tornado lasts from mere seconds to a half hour or more. Most last less than ten minutes. Then, for reasons scientists dont understand, it transforms back into ordinary clouds and drifts away. In its final minutes, it can look like a thin rope as it ropes out. But a rope tornado can still be powerfulthe winds can speed up as the funnel narrows. I look at one image, a white line of cloud stretching down, and think of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line in Moby-Dick. This rope, attached to the harpoon, coiled in loops around oarsmen in their small boat. And when a harpooned whale bolted, this line would slice through the air like lightning, sometimes catching a man and dragging him overboard to his doom. Yet still the men would cheerfully row out to a whale, merrily bantering, seemingly oblivious to the hempen intricacies that encircled them like a hangmans noose. But why say more? wrote Herman Melville. All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.


Excerpted fromTransientandStrange: Notes on the Science of Life by Nell Greenfieldboyce. Copyright 2024 by Nell Greenfieldboyce. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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