Sunday, June 17, 2012

Why We Can't Ignore "Small" Tornadoes

I took this photo of a small tornado south of Jetmore, Kansas, last month.  Even though the funnel does not reach all the way to the ground, it is definitely a tornado since the whirling debris cloud is evidence the storm's twisting winds reach all the way down.

There is a trend in meteorology these days to attempt to warn of tornadoes based on their forecast intensity. I have attempted to discourage these efforts because there is no evidence weather science has the skill to do this consistently well.

But, let us assume meteorology could consistently well tell us whether a tornado was going to be moderate, strong, or violent.  What does that accomplish since the recommendations for taking shelter are virtually the same?

The other problem is that we don't know what is in the path of the tornado. A tragic example occurred on this date in 1978. A weak tornado killed 16 and injured three. Here are the details from the Topeka office of the National Weather Service (bolding theirs):


On June 17th 1978, a tornado struck very near the Whippoorwill Showboat on Lake Pomona in Osage county causing it to capsize. This very unusual and unique disaster resulted in 16 deaths and 3 injuries among the 58 passengers and crew aboard. Although the deaths were due to drowning when the vessel overturned, they were attributed to the tornado; making it one of the worst tornado death tolls in Kansas history. Nationwide media coverage was focussed on Kansas and this tornado for many days after the tragic event. People who boarded the Whippoorwill for an evening of fun and entertainment, likely never imagined what a historical catastrophe they were in for.

The tornado formed very rapidly around 7pm, cut an erratic but generally eastward path about 8 miles long before dissipating near the small community of Michigan Valley. Witnesses sighted 3 funnels rotating around the main vortex, which itself was no more than about 150 yards wide. Some people reported more than one tornado in the area.

Although damage was also reported to campers, trees and power lines in and near the lake, this tornado should have been relatively insignificant and generally the "norm" in Kansas. The exception occurred when the winds from the tornado capsized the Whippoorwill Showboat causing the 16 deaths. 

This incident shows that ALL tornadoes, no matter how small or short-lived, demand our respect, and have the potential to cause damage, injuries and fatalities, even when they do not make a direct strike.

Photo by the Topeka Capital-Journal, their story of the disaster is here

For now, I believe both the public and weather science would be best served by improving the accuracy of existing tornado warnings with a focus on minimizing false alarms (i.e., warning issued, no tornado occurs).  

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