Tornado Alley, USA: It is the world’s most active location for tornadoes and Oklahoma City knows what it is to be the tornado capital. It warrants this moniker, not necessarily because it sees the most tornadoes – which is an honor that goes to Texas – but because of its location; right at the heart of tornado alley and at the very epicenter of tornado activity in the United States.
So what is a tornado? It’s a spinning column of air that is connected both to a type of large storm cloud, know as a cumulonimbus, and the surface of the Earth. They form when the cool, moist air from a storm descends to Earth and collides with rising, warm air, resulting in the formation of a rotating cloud. Not all tornadoes are visible but, when they are, it is the funnel-shaped cloud of condensation that is seen. Tornadoes actually come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and even colors. Wind speeds vary from less than 100 miles per hour (mph) to around 300 mph in the most powerful instances. It is not simply the rotating cloud itself that is dangerous, but also the debris that it attracts, which then swirls around its base at fearsome speeds.
Relative to their size, in terms of land-mass, both the Netherlands (Holland) and the United Kingdom have higher average numbers of tornadoes per year, although they rarely grow to any size or cause significant damage. The United States, however, has the most tornadoes overall – and happens to have the perfect breeding-ground for them: Tornado alley. Right at the heart of the most intense tornado activity in the “alley” is Oklahoma City, which is why it deserves the title of Tornado Capital. There is really no firm definition of exactly where tornado alley is, but, generally speaking, it could be described as extending from the Rockies in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east and from eastern Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in the south to Montana in the north. At that certain time of the year, it is the constant collision of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico with cold air from the Rocky Mountains and Canada that produce such a high number of tornadoes – around 1,200 per year.
Oklahoma City, depending on how you define its boundaries, can be hit by roughly 30 or 40 tornadoes a year and, according to figures from the National Weather Service, there have been 25 recorded instances of the city being hit by two or more tornadoes in the same day. On June 8th, 1974, the city was struck by no less than 5 tornadoes. Most commonly, tornadoes occur between March and June, but it is possible to see them as early as February and as late as November.
A huge tornado took the lives of 24 people in Oklahoma on May 20th. To compound the tragedy, several tornadoes struck the suburbs of Oklahoma City on Friday, killing another five people and injuring more than 70 others. Among those killed, a woman and her baby died when the SUV they were travelling in overturned on Interstate 40. The loss of life is, of course, the most dreadful part of such an event. Add to that the scores of injured, the thousands without power and the enormous damage to property and infrastructure and the state of Oklahoma deserves our sympathy and needs our help. As for Oklahoma City; it’s a city that knows what it is to be the Tornado Capital.
Written by Graham J Noble