Tornadoes- the hurricane of the plains

June 19, 2009
By Anonymous

Have you ever been in a very frightening thunderstorm, or tornado? I have and I was amazed and scared at the same time. I don't mind storms and I often find them fun, unless they become dangerous. I have found the weather in the the state of North Dakota to be unpredictable and often harmful. Summer storms in this prairie state are frequent and chaotic; sweeping across the plains without warning, destroying crops, damaging property, and taking lives.

After experiencing some of these storms I wanted to understand why North Dakota has so many more dangerous storms than Michigan, so I Googled "how dangerous storms are formed". I learned that warm air currents coming from the Atlantic ocean flow under the cold air from the mountains to the west. The warm air rises and the cold air is pushed down, creating unstable air currents and violent storms. Another reason for the extreme weather in the prairies is flat open land and lack of trees that usually slow winds.

Another question that I had was, "When is a storm really considered dangerous?" The national weather service states on their website that a storm is considered dangerous when wind speeds are greater than sixty-five miles per hour or when there is cloud to ground lightning, hail, or a tornado.

I looked at the death rate and the property damage figures on the same web site and discovered that the most dangerous prairie weather is tornadoes because they kill more people than lightening and hail combined. I can certainly understand that. The tornado that went through our yard carried enough debris to kill anything that was in the way. Thankfully it only slightly damaged the siding and shingles

That tornado also taught me a lesson about air raid sirens. No, they are not just to warn of the approach of enemy bombers. In rural North Dakota many towns also use their air raid sirens as a warning for fires, tornadoes, and every day at lunch. On several stormy days that helpful lunch alarm scared me so bad that it sent me running for the basement before I even had time to figure out what the problem could be. I wonder what would happen if there was a tornado right at noon. I guess everyone would rush off to lunch instead of running for their storm shelter. The odd thing is that someone has to see the tornado or get warning in order to turn the siren on and the night a tornado went through our yard the siren didn't make a sound.

People do the strangest things during severe weather. Outsiders like me run for cover at the first sign of danger. Old timers stand outside and watch the storm coming while carrying on a conversation about its size, shape, direction and chance of it tearing through the town. But people's reaction isn't the only curiosity when it comes to prairie storms, tornadoes have been known to do strange things as well. A farmer that lived just outside the town that I was staying in had a tornado come through his yard, pick up his pole-barn and carry it away without a trace; leaving his house untouched. In fact much of what is carried away in a tornado gives the funnel cloud it's color. Even though tornadoes often appear gray or black they are actually invisible, the dark color comes from swirling debris, water vapor, and maybe even a cow or two.

Last summer's prairie adventure had it moments, but tornados were not my only problem. Although they are the most dangerous prairie storm, hail affects large areas and can be more damaging to buildings and crops than tornadoes or lightning. Hailstones are formed when falling raindrops are carried back into the cold upper levels of the atmosphere by strong updrafts. As the raindrop rises and starts to freeze other drops stick to it. When the hail stones are big enough to outweigh the force of the updrafts they fall to the ground in masses, raining down chunks of ice that can be as small as a marble or as large as a softball. I experienced a few short hail storms, but even though they were small and the hail was not big enough to break glass many people were still worried about gardens and crops.

From my experience hail and lightening storms seem to come hand in hand. Lightning is very common in the prairies and can be dangerous, but most thunderstorms have sheet lightning, which is not very dangerous, but when there is cloud to ground lightning it can be deadly. Cloud to ground lightning is especially dangerous in the prairies because it is attracted to the tallest point in any area; which in the incredibly flat land of the prairies could have been me. Usually the most lightening will do is cause a blackout or start a fire but that is not always the case. The National Weather service reported that in the midwest in 2008 lightening killed twenty six people. Because of the frequent severe weather people in North Dakota shave to take many precautions against the severe storms that sweep across the prairies every summer. Our family like most, had a basement to find shelter in and some people have a crawl-space or storm shelter, but if you dont have a basement most tows have a shelter that you could go to.

Please don't get the wrong idea, I did not spend the whole summer dodging tornados and running for the basement. I enjoyed the wide open spaces and exploring the miles of gravel roads. The storms; well I could do without them. Me and my family spent the summer there because we were considering making our new home in North Dakota, but we decided against it because of the lack of trees, lakes, and the presence of extreme weather. And after hearing about a winter filled with one wild blizzard after another; I think Michigan is a good choice for us.

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