Every northern summer the Great Plains of North America are home to an atmospheric turf war when the cold dry air of the Colorado Rockies butts up against the hot zones of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. The resulting thunderstorms are Nature’s way of trying to balance things out.
But a thunderstorm is just a thunderstorm; the trigger for real violence is ‘shear’, the thing that can make landing and taking off in an airplane such an interesting experience. The presence of shear makes a thunderstorm spin like a top and turns it from a bad storm into a absolutely terrifying event called a tornado.
In most tornadoes surface winds can be just forty miles an hour; in the worst they can reach over three hundred. These rotating winds form a distinctive funnel that usually descends from a ‘wall cloud’ at the thunderstorm base, and can form anything from a sinuous rope a few dozen yards wide to a wedge half a mile across. Some last an hour; most last less than ten minutes.
Every season there are a dozen tornadoes reported every day across the American plains. Most are weak and harmless, even dull; they just toss around a few leaves and some dirt in an isolated cornfield. In fact, despite living with tornado alerts every summer of their lives, many people living in the mid-West have only seen a tornado on television.
But ... and it’s big but ... around one per cent of these storms turn violent.
For every hundred short-lived funnel clouds that touch down in a dusty field and frighten a cow one may form for a few short minutes into the single most violent weather phenomenon on the planet.
That’s when grain hoppers are tossed around like plastic bags. Lives are destroyed and people die.
A few years ago I saw one of these monsters close up in the Texas panhandle. Driving through the panhandles is like driving through a seventies pop music chart. Road signs point to Amarillo (is this the way to it?) Tulsa (twenty four hours from it) Wichita (there’s a lineman on it) and Route 66 (you can get your kicks on it).
The Interstate has now replaced the old route 66, which once linked the east and west seaboards, but you can still see parts of it in places. We passed motels with names like the It’ll Do motel – yeah, it’ll do if you’re a serial killer and you need somewhere to hide from the cops or it’ll do if you’ve spent most of your life sleeping in dumpsters - and a restaurant with bars on the windows. To stop thieves getting in or customers getting out?
The panhandle is griddle iron flat and the weather doesn’t mess around. A severe thunderstorm, in the local lexicon, is one that produces tornadoes and hail bigger than three quarters of an inch. Anything less is just an inconvenience.
|Seymour Texas 1979|
Number plates don’t have legends like STATE OF EXCITEMENT or GARDEN STATE; instead they say, I DON'T THINK WE'RE IN KANSAS ANY MORE, TOTO.
We came across our own little monster on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas. Our first warning was a line of flatbeds, some with Dopplers mounted on the back, and something that looked like the Batmobile made out of grey metal. Leaning out of the turret like a tank commander liberating Belgium was an unshaven guy with goggles, eating a Snickers bar. Apparently these professional storm chasers were sponsored by National Geographic.
|the National Geographic's tornado tank: Colin Falconer|
The wind suddenly died away. The light was a greasy pale-green, and the silence absolute. Clouds circled low over the houses. It was out there on the plain, easily visible now, the wedge driving through the dust under a sky the color of lead.
We topped a rise, and rain hammered onto the windshield like a kid throwing handfuls of gravel. Suddenly it was pitch-black. The storm has changed direction and we were suddenly on the wrong side of it. The van rocked in the wind and we felt the wheels start to lift.
|photograph: Colin Falconer|
A car raced past us on the road, heading the other way, lights burning a hole through the flood of rain. Our driver performed a panicked U turn, wheels skidding on the gravel at the side of the road.
It was over in seconds. The tires found traction again and hissed over the rain-slick road away from the clawing tendrils of the storm. We headed back to Amarillo. The storm had dumped rain right across the county and we ploughed through water a foot deep. Our driver hoped we didn’t lose the road.
“No way we’ll get her back on the blacktop if we lose it. We can’t get out and push.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“There’s rattlers in that water. The tornado don’t just disrupt human life.”
We made Amarillo an hour later and that night we were treated to the most astonishing light show I have ever seen, it was like being on the inside of a Tesla jar, sinuous lightning leaping silently across the lowering sky every two or three seconds.
|Moore, Oklahoma, 1999|
Out there on the plains people live four months out of every year with the possibility of losing everything. Terror, devastation and death are just part of their weather pattern. The tornado that yesterday killed thirteen poor souls in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee was just an F4, the second-highest rating given to twisters. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
An F-1 is even worse than that.
Let’s hope they are spared anymore out there this week. Having seen a small one that close, I cannot imagine what it’s like standing in the way of a big twister, and having nowhere to run.