Bowling alley effect produces tornadoes
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 3:26am Kim McConnell
In a weather event where "normal" rarely happens, there is one truth.
"Any tornado is a killer waiting to happen," Kevin Kloesel, director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey headquartered at the University of Oklahoma, told legislators late last year. "Every tornado has the potential to be a killer."
Oklahomans and those who live in the Sooner state for any length of time have ample reason to respect the storm clouds that most commonly darken the Plains in spring and summer although tornadoes have been recorded in Oklahoma in every month on the calendar, Kloesel said, noting the Oklahoma Climatological Survey is the repository for weather data dating back to statehood. There's a science to tornadoes, but casual observers and non-meteorologists might be forgiven for thinking storm predictions have more in common with voodoo and witchcraft than science.
It's the nature of the beast and the area of the country, Kloesel said. Call it simple mathematics: Only 15 percent of Oklahoma's storm clouds produce tornadoes.
"We don't know why the other 85 percent don't," Kloesel said. "That's our challenge."
The simple explanation for why storms occur is location and something meteorologists call a dry line, where cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains meets warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. That meeting can produce strong upper-level winds in the jet stream that is thought to feed the storms that morph into tornadoes.
Why here is a little easier to understand. Kloesel points to a bowling alley, where operators install gutter guards when children are bowling, to ensure their balls stay in the alley. Think of the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east as the nation's "gutter guards" that keep tornadoes in Tornado Alley.
But even when meteorologists know the weather is primed for tornadoes, they can't always pinpoint when they will occur, not with the accuracy of hurricane forecasting. And that's especially true in Oklahoma.