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Major tornado in Columbus ‘is inevitable’

Courtesy of MCT

Tornado season has been particularly devastating in 2011. The official death count from tornado fatalities this year is 504, the highest since 1953, when there were 519, according to the National Weather Service.

While the death toll remains high, Ohio, and more specifically Columbus, have been spared by the recent string of deadly tornadoes, because of the lack of necessary elements to create a tornado.

Jay Hobgood, a professor in atmospheric sciences and adviser to the Meteorology Club at Ohio State, said the conditions need to be perfect for a tornado to form.

“We are far enough east; its relatively rare that we see tornadoes here,” Hobgood said.

Hobgood said the mixture of warm, moist air masses near the surface, generally from the Gulf of Mexico, and cool dry air masses from the Rocky Mountains, create the possibility of a tornado.

Jeff Rogers, a professor in atmospheric sciences at OSU, said there are very few tornadoes in Ohio because of the lack of these elements.

“The primary reasons we don’t see tornadoes here is that we don’t see the mechanisms that create tornadoes,” Rogers said. “We don’t see the flow of low-level moisture typically seen in the spring and summer evenings in the southern states.”

Christie Lightfritz, a second-year in atmospheric sciences and president of the Meteorology Club, said the mechanisms include a change in wind direction at an elevation.

“The change in wind direction in elevation, added to the cold air up high and the warm, moist air lower … the air masses meet, and it starts a rotation called a mesocyclone,” Lightfritz said.

The National Weather Service rates the intensity of tornadoes, which ranges from an F0 to an F5, where F5s are the most devastating.

Rogers said the number of tornadoes, in addition to the tornadoes hitting highly populated areas, was the main cause of the high number of deaths.

“It’s extremely abnormal. The high number of tornadoes this year is unbelievable,” Rogers said.

Rogers said death tolls were a lot higher in past decades because of primitive warning systems.

“We usually think that such older large death tolls were due to the poor tornado warning system of bygone decades,” Rogers said. “Now the warning system is much better so other issues now arise such as the possible increased intensity of tornadoes and the chance misfortune that they have regularly hit large cities this year.”

The most tornado-caused deaths in a year was in 1925, when 794 people were killed, 694 of which were killed in one tornado, according to the National Weather Service.

It has been proven that tornadoes are not adverse to hitting cities, they are more likely to hit cities than previously thought, Rogers said.

Cory Martin, a second-year in atmospheric science, agreed with Rogers.

“They are hitting more populated areas, such as Minneapolis, so we are noticing them more.”

Rogers said tornado season generally is in April and May, and in places like Ohio, the season can go into June and July.

There has not been a major tornado in central Ohio since 1974, when an F5 tornado flattened the town of Xenia, Ohio. Thirty-three people were killed and another 1,500 people were injured.

Tornadoes this season have torn through various parts of Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama and many other states. On Sunday, several tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., left about 123 dead, and thousands more devastated. April 25-27, several tornadoes made their way through parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Virginia, leaving about 322 dead, according to the National Weather Service.

Rogers said there are myths concerning behaviors of tornadoes, and most of them were untrue.

“Most of these myths have been dispelled,” Rogers said. “It was thought that tornadoes avoid hilly areas, that tornadoes won’t cross water, like rivers. All dispelled.”

According to the National Weather Service, Franklin County, Ohio was under a tornado watch until at least 5 a.m. today.

Rogers said the probability of a tornado in Columbus at some point, is high.

“It is inevitable that there may be a major tornado in Columbus,” Rogers said. “Statistically it is bound to happen.” 

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