SEEING IT COMING
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|July/August 2021
Tornado forecasts can be challenging, but a new strategy shows promise.
Joseph Taylor

At around 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, 1925, a tornado formed above the woods in southern Missouri. A small but strong swirling funnel touched the ground, uprooting trees and sending them hurling through the air.

As the tornado sped northeast, it grew in size and speed and demolished the small town of Annapolis, leveling 78 houses. Next it slammed into the town of Biehle. There, a school with 25 students and their teacher was lifted up into the air and carried the length of several soccer fields. As the building splintered in midair, the kids and teacher were flung back to Earth. Somehow, each one of them survived.

The tornado grew darker, louder, bigger. People observed not a slender, fluffy white spiral but an enormous, near mile-wide black cloud. It sounded at moments like screaming freight trains and acted like a monstrous vacuum, sucking up and slinging debris of every imaginable sort: roofs of buildings, shards of glass, and entire cars and tractors. As it was traveling at more than 73 miles per hour (117 km/h) and producing winds of about 300 mph (483 km/h), no one could outrun it.

The Tri-State tornado, as it became known, sputtered to an end in southwest Indiana, three and a half hours after forming. By that time, it had traveled through three states, leaving 695 people dead and over 2,000 injured. Considered the deadliest single tornado in US history, the Tri-State tornado scarred the people of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana and terrified the nation.

The Shape of Things

A tornado is a powerfully spinning column of air that descends from a cloud, usually in a thunderstorm, and touches the Earth’s surface. Sometimes they appear as funnels, but other times they take on the appearance of a dark, low cloud, as was the case with the Tri-State tornado. More than 75 percent of the world’s tornadoes strike the United States, often in an area known as “Tornado Alley,” a swath of land running roughly from northern Texas to South Dakota. Tornadoes, though, can occur just about anywhere on the planet in the right conditions.

From 1885 to 1938, tornado forecasts were banned in the United States. Officials believed the dreaded word “tornado” would cause panic among the public and that tornado forecasting was simply not possible.

Most experts today agree that predicting tornadoes— and issuing tornado watches and warnings based on those predictions—saves many lives. Warnings give people a chance to protect themselves before the worst arrives. Numerous advances relating to tornado forecasting have been made in the past half-century. Yet no one technique has proven completely effective. Could a new type of forecasting approach offer a whole new layer of protection?

Tools of the Tornado Trade

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