Recently, Nebraska was hit with three hurricanes, or as they have been called “triple twisters.” The remarkable occurrence of multiple twisters at once was evaluated using the Fujita Scale, a measurement tool used by climate scientists. The power and force of tornadoes have long since dominated the public’s attention, especially as their path of destruction increases. Much like the rubbernecking that occurs when drivers witness a wreck on a freeway, the public’s fascination with the sheer damage and force of a tornado is enough to make many people stop and stare in wonder and awe at these twisters even if only witnessed on television, from the safety of their own homes.
Unfortunately for residents of the small Nebraska towns of Pilger, Coleridge, and Laurel, folks did not need to turn on their televisions, they simply needed to look out of their windows. Gale-force winds and mile-wide tornadoes ripped destructive paths through the northeastern part of the state early this week. The triple tornadoes in Nebraska left residents of three towns scrambling to locate loved ones and assess the damage in the tragic aftermath of the powerful forces that flattened houses and left at least two people dead. While residents of Pilger are still reeling from their twin twister touchdowns of Monday afternoon, the neighboring towns of Coleridge and Laurel were both threatened early Wednesday morning by another powerful tornado, as it hovered nearby the two communities for approximately an hour.
With so much mindless destruction, scientists have been working for decades to develop various methods and instruments in order to “predict” these forces of atmospheric awe. Climatologists, meteorologists, plucky “storm chasers,” and other professionals in the field understand that nature cannot be predicted with 100 percent accuracy. However, they began compiling massive amounts of data, satellite images, and reports from local weather stations in an effort to produce estimates of the devastating effects of the twisters.
So how do scientists “measure” these twisters? The Fujita Scale, designed in 1971 by T. Theodore Fujita, developed general qualifiers, which in turned helped climate scientists categorize tornadoes on a scale from zero to five, offering ballpark estimates of wind speed, ground speed, the ground width of the twister, and the general damage left in the wake of a twister. This scale, widely used by climate scientists, was the gold standard for over 35 years. That is, before Mr. Fujita’s scale received a “makeover,” of sorts.
In 2007, scientists and engineers working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) developed the “Enhanced F-Scale,” in an effort to better understand these destructive forces of nature. The numeric values of zero through five remain the same, but an additional 28 other classifying features grace the pages of this new system. Based on observed damage and estimated wind speed, scientists create artificial “tornadoes” in a controlled environment. These controlled environments measure the levels of destruction, while incrementally increasing wind speeds in powerful, three-second wind bursts.
This enhanced scale is oddly specific, despite NOAA’s stern reminder that these lists and categories are not measurements, but are approximations based on conglomerate data from both experiments in a laboratory environment, and weather stations across the country. Listed types of destruction range from “single-wide mobile home” to “automobile showroom,” softwood tree damage, and more. However strange these damage qualifiers may appear, it is understandable why scientists are making every effort to illustrate, list, or otherwise estimate every aspect of a twister’s destructive force.
A tornado’s powerful nature is often unpredictable, frightening, and deadly. Climate scientists understand that the problem does not lie in predicting its outcome, but in preventing the senseless deaths of those who are unlucky enough to cross paths with such a destructive force of nature. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict every aspect and threat of a twister, and residents in Nebraska recently learned this the hard way as triple twisters touched down in their home towns. While the improved Fujita Scale, in concert with the efforts of these climate scientists, are advancing the development of enhanced tornado warning systems, which in turn, can save lives. Unfortunately for those already affected by such malevolent forces, the chaos of Mother Nature, it seems, will always have the trump card over human preparedness.
By Hayden Freed