Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nature, Raw

"Tornado deaths require two things. You have to have the tornado and you have to have people in the right or the wrong place." Harold Brooks, research meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.

Now that's some title. But it would entitle him, as an expert, a professional with vast experience behind him in parsing the atmosphere and weather systems, to express his considered opinion. Which is that people seem to have a tendency to position themselves awkwardly in terms of proximity to natural systems, and at the same time insufficiently shielding themselves from the fall-out of weather systems.

Like building homes in flood plains. They're called flood plains for a reason. It's reasonable to assume that a river basin will at regular intervals, given extreme weather conditions, over run the constraints of their natural water runways, and flood the surrounding area. This is not extreme environmental science, it is rudely obvious and continually observed.

If someone insists on building homes at the foot of a volcano known to erupt on a regular basis, it is not a very prudent decision. If soil is mostly comprised of sand and clay it is well enough known that this is a very unstable combination where the soil can suddenly turn to slippery mush when inundated and cause landslides; don't build there.

In areas of the U.S. mid-west where high winds collide with the extremes of cold and warm air becoming hysterical in the process, tornadoes regularly ensue; it is the stuff of legends and even fondly, of very popular movies. In such tornado-prone environments it is a good idea to build after excavating basements. It is not a very good idea to place too many trailer homes on concrete pads.

"The biggest single demographic change that probably affects things is that the fraction of mobile homes in the United States has increased over the years." (Harold Brooks) People are advised to take shelter underground, if possible; this is where basements come in very handy in saving lives. For the powerful force of a tornado easily lifts mobile homes, cars and trucks.

When atmospheric conditions are just right, those twisters are formed. Warm, moist air colliding with cold, dry air. "In April, essentially, we were stuck in a pattern where that was the way things were for a couple of weeks, and that pattern didn't move so we had repeated episodes that were favourable for producing significant tornadoes"...Harold Brooks.

That said, it is horrible that the people in Joplin, Missouri, suffered the dread nightmare of a tornado with winds as high as 320 km/h, making their circumstances deadly beyond their imaginations. The city lost 116 residents to a cruel, early death, and there may be more deaths discovered as search teams continue to look for survivors.

Stories are recounted of survivors experiencing the terror of the sound and fury of tornadoes roaring through their town, their homes, the structures in which large numbers of people gather routinely to shop, to mingle, to receive medical treatment - being destroyed and with the material destruction, human deaths.

Sobering, soul-scorching trauma.

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