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The deaths of three experienced storm chasers—Tim Samaras, his son and fellow researcher Paul, and Carl Young—in the EF5 tornado that struck El Reno, Okla. The Samarases and Young weren’t in El Reno for the sake of entertainment, though they had all been featured on the Discovery Channel program Storm Chasers. Unfortunately, no amount of experience might have made a difference in a direct confrontation with a storm this powerful and erratic.
Preliminary track of the tornado from the National Weather Service Office in Norman, Oklahoma. That fact was driven home to me while working on The Weather Channel series Hacking The Planet with Cara Santa Maria and Brian Malow, and on our later special The Truth About Twisters. Moreover, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tornado warnings give on average only 13 minutes notice. But suppose you are unlucky enough to be in a car and find a tornado bearing down on you, what’s your most prudent choice? Overpasses seem as though they would offer great protection from the wind—and sometimes they can, if the tornadic winds are coming primarily from certain directions. So to repeat my previous question, if you’re in a car and need protection from a tornado, what should you do? Animal Behavior Artificial Intelligence Biology Climate Creationist Twaddle Drug Development Economics Education Energy Entertainment Environment Evolution Evolutionary Psychology Gaaah!!! At the end of April, a spasm of tornadoes struck America’s Tornado Alley once again, ripping through Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. As the hard-hit towns clean up, The Why Files is wondering about tornadoes, nature’s most intense storms.
Tornadoes are compact, powerful whirlwinds powered by differences in wind, moisture and temperature.
Time-lapse video of the weather system that spawned tornadoes in seven central and southern U.S.
A tornado may stay on the ground for an hour or so; at the extreme, they may be more than a mile wide. Tornadoes most commonly strike Tornado Alley in the American mid-section, where the atmosphere is affected by the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Supercells form where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meets cool, dry air from the west. Scientifically speaking, energy is the ability to do work (that’s one of the plainest definitions in science). An F5 tornado struck Elie, Manitoba, Canada, (40 kilometers west of Winnipeg) on June 22, 2007. That condensation, in turn, releases the latent heat — the biggest single source of energy in a thunderstorm. A tornado with wind speeds of 200 mph releases kinetic energy at the rate of 1 billion watts — equal to the electric output of a large nuclear or coal-fired electric generator.
But that’s just processed cheese compared to the supercells that can spawn tornadoes.
We asked Bluestein about recent advances in tornado prediction, and he pointed to a new system that views the atmosphere in much finer detail, and hence can forecast severe weather, including tornadoes, with greater precision. The High-Resolution Rapid Refresh system, which will go nationwide later in 2014, will update forecasts hourly over the lower 48 United States at extremely sharp resolution, based on the latest observations from ground and satellite-based sensors, radars and aircraft. Forecast systems model the atmosphere by looking at conditions at points on imaginary grids; conditions at points between the grid intersections are unknown.
Stan Benjamin, a research meteorologist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colo. With that accuracy, HRRR can identify rotating storms, which are more likely to produce tornadoes.
The benefits of HRRR are already evident to Bluestein, who had to cut our interview short to go out storm chasing on Wednesday. In the realm of basic physics, Bluestein says, atmospheric scientists are closing in on a fundamental question: Where does the rotation originate?
The proclivity for uphill travel seemed to be the deciding factor when the two titanic tornadoes changed direction. In a computer model of hills and tornadoes,2 Selvam modeled the relationship between tornado radius and hill height. Computer models, Selvam notes, “don’t have much validity unless you have a way to verify them.
Tornado watch: Issued by the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center when weather conditions are ripe for tornadoes. In the United States 20 years ago, only 35 percent of tornadoes were preceded by a warning, says Daniel Sutter, a professor of economics at Troy University in Troy, Ala. In a study of tornadoes between 1986 and 20043 Sutter found that a watch preceding a warning did not save lives.
If tornadoes are undeniably dangerous, why not build houses able to withstand a direct hit by an EF4 or EF5?
But it’s a different story for houses under weaker tornadoes, or those near the path of an EF4 or EF5. Roof sheathing, usually made of oriented strand board or plywood, should be nailed or stapled securely to the rafters. The FlatSafe tornado shelter seems to meet the extreme requirements of an effective shelter, and carries some significant endorsements, but it looks expensive. The conventional wisdom is that existing houses cannot be retrofitted with a safe room, but Robert Falk of the U.S. Falk expects to finish development in a year or two, and hopes to persuade stores in Tornado Alley to sell a complete kit of materials and instructions. Today at SxSW in Austin a tornado ripped through downtown, demolished some hotels and left the city without power. Experts from the United States Coast Guard (Semper Paratus) and the Air Force shared practical advice on how they handle communications via social channels during crisis. 2) We now live in an era of “permission-less information.” There are no gatekeepers and many organizations are using every channel possible to get out information.
In crisis communication, in the long run, you look good by being honest, not by trying to look good.

Data and numbers are a huge issues (In San Francisco, thy once reported an oil spill was 150 gallons. How good was this session?   I looked at social share of voice for this session and one on spreadable content – and #crisiscomm won hands down. Creating And Sharing Value For All: Inclusive Growth And Business Citizenship At The Heart Of The Fourth Industrial Revolution. MSLGROUP North AmericaMSLGROUP North America is part of MSLGROUP, Publicis Groupe’s strategic communications and engagement group.
At home, have a family tornado plan in place, based on the kind of dwelling you live in and the safety tips below. If you shop frequently at certain stores, learn where there are bathrooms, storage rooms or other interior shelter areas away from windows, and the shortest ways to get there. Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base -- tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
Day or night - Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder. Night - Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). Night - Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning -- especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands. In the United States, most tornadoes hit in the central part of the country, but can touch down anywhere.
A tornado is often a funnel clouda€”a rotating column of aira€” that stretches from a storm to the ground. Tim Samara was a respected tornado investigator and the founder of TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes Experiment), the field team to which Paul Samaras and Carl Young also belonged. Other storm chasers on the scene who got too close saw their cars battered catastrophically. Then again, almost none of the thousands of people who jumped into cars and jammed interstates around Oklahoma City in an attempt to flee the approaching storm belonged on the road.
It became clear that surviving an encounter with a tornado is not just a matter of doing the right things. Yes, in theory, getting away from a tornado’s likely path would seem to be a smart move, and a car would typically be the fastest, handiest way to do it. The greatest harm may come from flying debris, which can be of any size or composition—paperclips, loose lumber, mailboxes, shards of glass, pieces of other cars, anything and everything—moving on average about 100 mph. Severe rain and hail can make driving hazardous, with cars losing control and smashing into one another. In April 1991, a group of people successfully hid under an overpass for shelter against a tornado in Kansas. From other directions, however, the narrow confines of an overpass will focus and intensify the winds, and funnel flying debris toward anyone hiding inside.
The best option would be to leave the car and try to get inside any nearby house, store, office building or other sturdy structure that you can get into—ideally, one with a good basement or a proper tornado shelter. If you do have the option of sheltering indoors, you want to seek a spot that is underground, or in a windowless space toward the center of the structure so that you are shielded from debris that might blast through the outer walls.
According to the experts we interviewed for Hacking The Planet, when a tornado hits a house, it subjects the structure to complex, fast-changing forces that push and pull in rapid succession. Watch this clip of a demonstration from The Truth About Twisters in which Brian observes how leaving the door of a house open makes a catastrophic difference in its stability. Although tornadoes occur in India, Bangladesh and other regions, they are most intense and devastating in the United States.
Howard Bluestein, a veteran storm chaser and professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma notes that in the spring, a strong westerly jet stream across the Alley creates instability and a trough of low pressure that draws in warm, moist air from the Gulf. The sun warms the moist, air, which rises due to convection, breaking through the cap and releasing latent heat that powers the updraft, the thunderstorm and tornadoes.
Moisture condenses, releasing latent heat which warms the air, causing it to rise by convection at up to 150 mph. This was one of the strongest twisters since 1999 and one of only nine to reach EF5 between 1999 and 2011 in North America. The tornado’s ultimate source of energy, the sun, warms the ocean, evaporating water, which carries the latent heat of vaporization (a kind of potential energy) into the atmosphere. Latent heat warms the rising air, causing a density difference that lifts the air fast enough to form a tornado. These monsters release latent heat at the rate of 40 trillion watts — 40,000 times greater than the twister. 27, 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala., caused much more damage on the uphill sections of its path (left) than on the downhill sections.
He says the answer seems to lie in a zone of extreme pressure differential in the forward flank of the supercell. Not always, according to a recent study of catastrophic 2011 tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.
The researchers also noticed the tornadoes hopping over valleys and causing significant damage only on the top of the bordering hills. So how effective are the tornado watches that are intended to spread the word that a tornado is possible? They can, he says, trigger early efforts to organize community assistance, and notify tornado spotters, weather helicopters, and television crews trying to cover the storm. Even in Tornado Alley, a twister hits a given square mile only once every 700 years, and unless you want to live underground, it makes no economic sense to build a house to survive such a cataclysm. Shingles near roof edges face the strongest winds and should be set in special mastic during reshingling.
Even though building codes usually require anchor bolts, builders sometimes deem them optional. A new home in tornado country can be fitted with a tornado room in an interior, windowless room.

That hypothetical scenario is how the “Disaster: The Future of Crisis Communications” session started at the conference. Although some of our colleagues did support National Grid manage communications around Hurricane Sandy recently, most of the daily issues we deal with as communications professionals, while significant, don’t encompass the devastation of an area.
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Though scientists will never be able to stop a tornado, the more they know, the more they can keep people safe. A car holding Mark Bettes of The Weather Channel and other passengers was thrown 200 yards (he and the other occupants were injured but not killed).
Shamefully, they may have been led astray by at least one local meteorologist and a shelter builder interviewed on CNN, who suggested leaving the threatened area. In The Truth About Twisters, Cara observed a demonstration of what an airborne two-by-four moving at that speed could do to a car: it punched a hole through the front windshield and out the back, and would have pulped any passenger in its way. Torrential rain also leads to local flooding, so it’s not uncommon for cars driving away from tornadoes to end up underwater.
Videotape of their adventure helped to popularize the idea that overpasses offered a good refuge from twisters to highway drivers.
Winds during tornadoes are highly changeable, so even if conditions under an overpass seem benign at first, they can rapidly (and lethally) change for the worse. But short of that, counter intuitively, if you can’t find indoor refuge, your best bet may be to lie flat in a ditch, holding onto something heavy as an anchor, with cushions or blankets over you as a shield against debris.
Be attentive to what might fall on top of you in the event of a building collapse; if you can get under a strong piece of furniture for additional protection, do it.
In effect, the tornado squeezes and tugs at your house as though it were playing the accordion, exposing any weakness. Those explosions of white show water rising rapidly, powered by convection, marking tornado tops on this turbulent spring day. As the spinning air column narrows, it rotates faster and the funnel cloud extends higher into the storm. Your Model T burns petroleum-derived gasoline, creating heat energy, which the engine transforms into kinetic energy. After tracking the destruction on aerial photos, Panneer Selvam at the University of Arkansas found that twisters preferred going uphill, and also caused more destruction while ascending. Students are modeling different heights from the ground to see what is happening,” and then studying the effects of real tornadoes.
The fast-moving storm system spawned multiple tornadoes in the Midwest, causing destruction in 12 states and killing at least five people.
Listen for announcements on a radio, television, computer or mobile device, and prepare to act.
Go to a safe place, turn on a battery-powered radio or mobile device, and wait for instructions or an all-clear. Steel doors and reinforced concrete walls and ceiling can form a room that’s nearly bombproof, except in a direct hit. The wall, composed of a triple layer of 2 x 8 lumber nailed loosely together, is being evaluated for a safe room that can be built inside an existing basement.
If everyone hears about a tornado and gets in the car to try to outrun it, they will get caught in traffic, and they are going to get hurt.
Always use the worst case scenario so folks don’t accuse you of fudging numbers and lose trust.
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No matter what movies show, scientists have had little success measuring or getting equipment into tornadoes. The logic of escaping sounds compelling, but it ignores the more compelling consideration that the risks of being caught on the road, even in a seemingly solid vehicle, are overwhelming.
Here are a few of them; we might as well start with the one that was the downfall of the Samarases and others at El Reno. A Tornadoes can change course unpredictably, and it isn’t always easy to see their funnels in the murk of bad weather surrounding them, which puts storm chasers relying on visibility alone, without support from tracking radar, at a profound disadvantage. Far smaller objects might not have as much penetrating power, but they could still pummel, slice, or kill. According to the National Weather Service, most of the people killed by floods during tornadoes drown inside their cars.
Opening the windows and doors only succeeds in letting the winds into the house so that internal supports can be shaken apart, too, which weakens the structure even more. And when your brakes stop the car, the kinetic energy is transformed back into heat energy. Dots record wall movement during the shot, which was gauged a success because the 2 x 4 did not penetrate the wall.
Make sure you have adapted to the 24 second news cycle and can monitor, engage, communicate the right information and quickly correct incorrect information. Not only is it dangerous, a tornado demolishes everything in its path, including measuring equipment.
As meteorologist Greg Forbes of The Weather Channel told Cara in The Truth About Twisters, several people have been killed trying the same trick. The received wisdom in those days was that because the pressures inside a tornado’s funnel were very low and the pressures inside the wall of spinning wind were very high, closed buildings would implode. Richard Charles Anderson, an amateur storm chaser, was also killed only minutes after snapping a photo of the El Reno twister. There is even one tragic case of a woman who died after leaving her perfectly solid house for what she thought was superior protection under an overpass.

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