A tornado touches down near Three Hills Alberta, and a flurry of footage appears on the web. But one photo goes viral: a man nonchalantly mowing his lawn as the twister apprently bears down on him.
“It looks much closer if you look in the photo, but it was really far away,” says the lawnmower man in question, Theunis Wessels. “Well, not really far, far away… I was keeping an eye on it.”
That mindset seems familiar to me from twister-seasoned Oklahomans and Texans I’ve met chasing storms up and down “tornado alley”, where – except for a stangely barren 2017 – tornadoes are a much more common beast. “Thurz gonna be a tornada out? OK, gotta mow my laawn. Hold mah beer.”
How close can you get to a tornado? Predictably that depends on the size, but also the type of tornado. It’s never a good idea, particularly in urban environments, to be anywhere near, as it’s the debris that does the damage. It’s hard to judge how far away this one is – at least half a mile, I’d say, having seen one from a similar distance last year. As most (not all) storms in the US move in a south-west to north-east direction, Mr Theuniss is probably justified in being somewhat confident that it is “moving way toward the east.”
As twisters go, this is a beauty. Few are are as photogenic as this modest-sized one, sweeping regally and predictably across the Great Plains at safe distance. This one – perhaps an EF1 or 2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado strength,with winds up to 135mph – reminds me of the Wray, Colorado twister from last year, its funnel caught perfectly by the sunset, the brown dirt swirling outside a graceful elephant trunk masking the mayhem happening at the centre of the vortex. If you want to see how close you can get to a tornado of this type check that out on YouTube (but don’t try it yourself).
Too often the really dangerous tornadoes are a muddy wedge dangerously veiled in a curtain of rain and hail. As veteran chaser, photographer and entertainer Hank Schyma (Pecos Hank on YouTube) says: “Many people dream of witnessing a tornado from a safe distance. And if that day arrives it’s often not what they imagined it would be. Dramatic images of well-lit cylinders, cones and ropes rise above the white noise of more typical rain-wrapped, weak-contrast, ill-defined tornadoes. In 2015, I witnessed 31 tornadoes. Of those, few, if any, were photogenic.” 2016 was another matter…
It is usually the aftermath of those horrible, EF4 and EF5 monster “wedges” we see on TV reports. People find themselves driving through a wall of rain and golfball-sized hail, only to emerge into an EF5 with up to 300-mph winds. That’s strong enough to toss trucks hundreds of metres and they can completely remove stone buildings from their foundations, strip roads of concrete and leave bizarre parting gifts such as pieces of straw embedded in telegraph poles or metal and chairs lodged in concrete. Clearly you don’t want to be anywhere near a tornado like that.
Not that this would deter extreme chasers such as Dr Reed Timmer or filmmakerSean Casey, who have built specialy adapted armoured vehices to intercept powerful tornadoes and conduct research. Sean Casey’s TIV2 vehicle is armed with 2ft spikes that anchor the TIV into the ground like a limpet, aiming to get right insie the funnel, whichg he has done – with jawdropping results. You can see that unforgettable footage on YouTube.
But ultimately, for me, the ideal tornado is Mr Wessel’s photogenic funnel snaking harmlessly over the prairie. From that distrance you can take in all the wondrous structure of the entire mesocyclone.
It’s a cruel irony that while the US stormchasing community endures the worst chasing season in living memory, their northern neighbours witness the tornado of a lifetime and can’t even be bothered to look at it. As my friend, the veteran chaser and photographer Ryan Shepard said yesterday: “What is going on this year? One day we’re almost driving to Mexico and another we’re considering driving to Canada. Did Trump build a wall to keep the tornadoes out of the United States?”