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10 Myths About Tornadoes Debunked

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Lots of the myths we have today are relics of a time when we didn't understand how the world worked. Weather is a topic that is rife with legends and sayings that purport to explain how storms form and behave. But even though we now have a greater understanding of the science behind weather, these misguided beliefs are still pervasive. (After all, if our grandparents said it; it's got to be true.) While most weather myths are harmless and quirky, the misconceptions surrounding tornadoes in particular can be a dire threat to your safety in an emergency.

1. MYTH: TORNADOES ARE ALWAYS VISIBLE.

It's understandable that we often try to see danger before taking someone else's word for it, but when it comes to tornadoes, that's not a great idea. You can't always see a tornado before it hits. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy rain that makes them impossible to see until they're right on top of you. Some twisters that are very small, or form in drier climates, never develop the condensation funnel that gives them their unmistakable look, presenting themselves only as a swirling debris cloud at the ground.

2. MYTH: YOU HEAR TORNADOES BEFORE THEY HIT.

One of the biggest clichés in weather is that a tornado sounds like a freight train when it hits. It's dangerous to wait until you can see a tornado to run for cover, but it's just silly to wait until you can hear one. The wind often picks up before a tornado arrives, but you won't hear that signature roaring sound until it's so close that it's too late to seek shelter.

3. MYTH: YOU SHOULD OPEN THE WINDOWS.

We've all probably seen a movie or a television show where a character runs around the house frantically opening the windows before a tornado strikes. This is one of the most well-known tornado myths—and it's completely bogus. This comes from a day when people thought that buildings exploded from extreme pressure differences rather than being torn apart by the wind. Opening windows and doors just makes it easier for the wind and debris to get inside and cause more damage.

4. MYTH: TORNADOES CAN'T HIT CITIES.

Some people who live in cities comfort themselves during thunderstorms by repeating the myth that tornadoes can't hit cities … except they can and do. Tall buildings don't stop a thunderstorm from spawning a tornado. A tornado hit downtown Atlanta in 2008, shattering windows at CNN's headquarters and damaging the roof of the Georgia Dome during a basketball game. Tornadoes in the past two decades have also hit New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, Texas, and many other major metropolitan areas in the United States.

5. MYTH: THEY CAN'T CROSS MOUNTAINS.

Folks who live in mountains or hilly terrain generally see fewer severe thunderstorms than their lower-lying counterparts, but the rough land doesn't provide blanket immunity from bad storms or even some tornadoes. Tornadoes can and do hit mountainous areas. They're not the monstrous walls of black you'd see in Oklahoma, but even a small tornado can do damage.

6. MYTH: BODIES OF WATER ARE A BARRIER TO TORNADOES.

Have you ever heard someone say not to worry about a tornado because it can't cross a river, lake, or bay? It's not true. Cooler air near bodies of water can disrupt thunderstorms, which could in turn disrupt tornadoes, but the water itself has no deterring effect on a tornado. Tornadoes easily cross rivers and lakes just as they would over land. In fact, the lower friction over the water might actually help a tornado's winds increase a little bit.

7. MYTH: DURING A TORNADO, YOU'RE SAFER UNDER A BRIDGE.

The kind of carnage a tornado can do to a vehicle is no joke. Tornadoes can twist cars and trucks into unrecognizable hunks of metal. This unfortunate reality causes countless motorists to take shelter under a bridge or overpass when threatened by a tornado. This is a terrible idea. Bridges and overpasses offer no protection from tornadoes and can actually make their winds even worse. Not only that, but taking shelter under a bridge can cause traffic jams that turn people into sitting ducks in an approaching storm.

8. MYTH: ALL TORNADOES MOVE SOUTHWEST TO NORTHEAST.

Many of us grew up hearing that you should hide in the southwest corner of a basement when a tornado strikes, because doing so will expose you to the least debris if the worst happens. Most tornadoes do move from southwest to northeast, but a tornado can come from any direction—and swirling debris will go where it may. Don't worry about looking at a compass during a tornado warning. You'll want to get as far underground as possible, and if you can't do that, go to the most interior room of a house. The goal is to put as many barriers between you and flying debris as possible.

9. MYTH: THEY OCCUR ONLY IN THE SPRING.

Tornadoes aren't just a springtime event. While tornado activity peaks between April and June, they're possible at any time of year. Ugly tornado outbreaks are a regular occurrence in the southern United States during the winter months. Tornadoes that occur in the “off-months,” so to speak, can be especially dangerous, because people aren't paying attention to severe weather when they're sitting by their Christmas tree enjoying a movie.

10. MYTH: ONLY SOME STATES HAVE TORNADOES.

Despite their reputations for occurring in places that are dry or bitter cold or have perpetually sunny skies, no state is immune from tornadoes. All 50 states have reported tornadoes at some point since the early 1950s. Tornadoes are most common from Alabama through Texas and north from Texas through Nebraska, but if the conditions are right, they can form anywhere from the woods of Maine to the beach towns of southern California. There have even been four reported tornadoes in Alaska, though the actual number in the country's largest state might be higher due to the lack of people around to report tornadoes.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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