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Science with a twist

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Posted: Monday, May 18, 2009 4:46 pm | Updated: 5:22 pm, Thu Jan 24, 2013.

The Enhanced Fujita-Scale

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Throughout the daylight hours of May 4, 1929, parents with tear-reddened eyes went about the grim task of burying their children.

Two days before, a powerful tornado demolished the small school in Rye Cove, killing 12 young students and their 24-year-old teacher, Ava Carter, and injured 42 others. That dreadful day of black, boiling skies swirling with sinister anger still stands as the deadliest tornado outbreak in Virginia history.

During that 24-hour period, five powerful tornadoes were reported throughout the state. Before the last spun itself out, a total of 22 people were dead and more than 150 injured.

Tornadoes are infrequent visitors to the Old Dominion, and the ones that do touch down tend to be of the weaker variety. That’s certainly not the case along the infamous “Tornado Alley” in the Midwest.

The twister’s shooting galley roughly takes in the Great Plains region between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, and from Texas up to Minnesota. This huge swath of land is ideally suited for the fierce collisions of powerful weather systems that produce tornadoes.

This makes the United States far and away the world leader in tornadic activity. Last year there were 1,691 confirmed tornados in the U.S., resulting in 125 fatalities and $1.84 billion in damages.

Local writer Stefan Bechtel got up close and personal with 10 of the tornadoes during a two-day period last May. He tells about the gut-wrenching experience in his just-released book, “Tornado Hunter: Getting Inside the Most Violent Storms on Earth.”

“We were in western Kansas around the town of Quinter when all this tornado activity happened,” said Bechtel, whose previous book, “Roar of the Heavens,” was about Hurricane Camille. “It was still light, but just barely, when the guy I was riding with, Tony Laubach, yells, ‘Tornado on the ground.’

“We pulled over, and as soon as I got out of the car I saw the funnel hit something, and all this debris went spinning up into it. It was really close [about a quarter-mile away] and moving lateral to us across the interstate.

“Two people were killed in a vehicle that night on the same stretch of highway, and a tractor-trailer was knocked over not far from us. It was a very powerful tornado, and the winds were so strong where we were that when I got back in the car, I needed two hands to close the door.”

The author will be discussing the National Geographic book and signing copies at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday at New Dominion Bookshop.

He worked with renowned storm chaser Tim Samaras to create the book, which is filled with fascinating tornado information as well as real-life drama created by the whirling vortexes.

Greg Forbes, the Weather Channel’s severe-storm expert, wrote the book’s foreword. He writes that Samaras is one of the storm chasers he respects the most.

Samaras has the distinction of holding the Guinness World Record for measuring the lowest pressure drop of a tornado. The electrical engineer managed to do this on June 24, 2003, when an instrument of his design, dubbed a Hardened In situ Tornado Pressure Recorder, survived a tornado passing directly over it.

“Tim is an amazing guy, basically a boy genius, who loves learning about tornadoes,” said Bechtel, who lives near Free Union. “His favorite thing as a kid growing up in Denver was taking stuff apart in his room to find out what made it work.

“One day his mother called him downstairs to watch this musical on television. He said he was completely bored with it until this tornado appeared, and then he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen.

“The musical was ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I went to a storm chaser convention, and so many of the people I talked with mentioned that movie as being the critical experience that got them interested in tornadoes.”

No special-effect magic is necessary these days. Camcorders almost routinely capture riveting scenes such as a house being literally sucked up into the vortex of a tornado and vehicles being flipped over in a parking lot. Despite all the dramatic film footage, tornadoes remain one of nature’s greatest mysteries. And no part of a tornado is more mysterious than the part of the funnel from the ground up to about 30 feet.

“The first 30 feet is critical, because that’s where most of us live, but it’s pretty much an unknown,” said Bechtel, who was one of the founding editors of Men’s Health magazine. “One case that’s frequently cited in books about tornadoes occurred back in the 1920s, when this guy actually looked up inside a tornado.

“He described this cloud going up and down inside it. Then he said at the base of the funnel there were things spinning around, some clockwise and others counterclockwise, making a hissing sound. What’s that about? We just don’t know.

“It’s not fully understood what causes tornadoes, what sustains them and why some last as long as they do. But the big question right now is: How come some storm cells produce tornadoes and others don’t?”

The fact that tornadoes are extremely ephemeral, usually lasting less than 10 minutes, and very difficult and dangerous to get close to makes the search for answers daunting. Bechtel heard one meteorologist refer to them as the “black holes of meteorology.”

Jerry Stenger is the director of the climatology office at the University of Virginia. He said the reason why Virginia isn’t a leading tornado state is largely because the mountains disturb some of the upper-air flow necessary to get strong tornadoes.

Tornadoes can happen anytime, but the peak months in the Midwest are from April through June. A lot of the tornadoes in Virginia occur during the summer months, and are often associated with the daily heating of the atmosphere.

Stenger said probably the biggest producers of tornadoes in the state are decaying tropical storms. They have a tendency to spin off tornadoes from the thunderstorms they contain.

“To get a strong tornado, you generally need a rapid change in moisture and temperature along with some strong upper-air flow, such as the jet stream, and a good source of moisture that’s fed in at lower levels,” Stenger said. “The result of all this is sharply rising air that as it rises releases the energy that’s contained.

“Probably the leading theory of tornado formation right now is that great vertical circulations of air occur within the storm. As the winds at different levels tend to act on this circulating air, it gets turned on end and forms a vertical column.

“When that vertical column of rotating air contacts the Earth, we have a tornado.”

Bechtel said one of his biggest surprises while doing research for the book was how different tornadoes can be. The first one he saw was slender, white and moved with a beautiful grace. He described the second one he saw as a “black, squat, satanic cone and scary as hell.”

What really scared the author during his tornado-chasing experience was driving on the same rural roads with dozens of other vehicles filled with people desperate to see a twister up close. He said that mixed in with the legitimate scientists and researchers are a handful of “hot dog” storm chasers who go flying through little towns, ignoring traffic signs, endangering people and giving a bad name to storm chasers as a group.

“What I quickly realized from being out there is that the danger is not from tornadoes,” Bechtel said. “The danger is from driving at high speed in bad weather on unfamiliar roads with potholes. During the peak tornado season in the Midwest, you can have literally hundreds of people chasing a tornado. I don’t know how you could regulate it, but it can become a madhouse and be very dangerous.

“Tim and others have become increasingly concerned about this. My editor at National Geographic kept telling me, ‘Look, you’ve got to explain the reason Tim and his crew are out there is to take measurements to save people’s lives by increasing the warning time. He’s not just a thrill seeker.’ ”

Currently the average warning time for a tornado is about 13 minutes. Samaras’ goal is to get not one, but several of his probes in the core of a tornado. If he can pull that off, the data gathered will provide invaluable information about the tornado’s deep structure and how it functions.

As dangerous and destructive as tornadoes can be, they also present viewers with a stark, albeit often terrifying, picture of Mother Nature’s unfathomable power.

“The first tornado I saw filled me with pure awe,” Bechtel said. “The next one, I was dead scared. The image of that thing was like the physical embodiment of fear. It’s like it’s deeply buried in your psyche.

“You’re looking at this black cone that’s not moving to the left or the right, which means it’s coming straight at you. Out of the 10 tornadoes I saw in that two-day period last May, I was seriously scared six times.

“And yet the magnificence and beauty of the natural world is just astounding.”

Bechtel will be discussing and signing copies of his book, “Tornado Hunter: Getting Inside The Most Violent Storms On Earth,” on Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. at New Dominion Bookshop.

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