CLOSE
Original image
Thinkstock

Why Do Tornados Frequently Hit Oklahoma City?

Original image
Thinkstock

Oklahoma City holds the dubious distinction of being the unofficial Tornado Capital of the United States. The U.S. city has endured more tornados than any other—149 officially recorded since 1890, as far back as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records go.

The Oklahoma City metro area has been ravaged by no less than six tornados in the past month (five recorded this past week alone in and around El Reno, OK), which altogether have caused almost three dozen deaths and major property damage. Moore, Oklahoma—a suburb just 10 miles south of Oklahoma City—got slammed by no less than five major tornados since 1998, two of them categorized as mighty EF5s: the devastating tornado that struck last month, and one in May of 1999. With winds clocked at 318 miles per hour, the latter is considered to be the strongest tornado ever recorded worldwide.

Why does the Big Friendly steal the thunder?

The answer is complicated, because there is still a lot we don’t know about the inner workings of tornados. Where they touch down is not an exact science, and much of the research meteorological scientists have conducted has shown that twisters don’t seem to be very picky about where they show up and when. Pure coincidence may be all we can blame.

What we do know is that the unique geography of the continental United States makes it more susceptible to tornados than the rest of the world, particularly in the central plains region the media refers to as “Tornado Alley”—which plays doormat to roughly a quarter of the strongest tornados recorded. Tornados are the spawn of the lurid meteorological embrace of cool, dry Rocky Mountain air moving southeast and warm, humid Gulf air moving northwest that meet over the country’s midsection, most notably over that swath of the plains that extends from Iowa south to northern Texas.

The rotating mix of air currents forms giant supercell thunderstorms that tend to breed tornados, and Oklahoma City appears to be smack dab in the middle of it. The local terrain certainly helps—there aren’t many large bodies of water nor are there mountainous regions in the area that can complicate tornado formation. Large rivers, great lakes or proximity to the ocean can potentially cool warm air, which may ease the severity of thunderstorms that form downwind of these bodies of water. Mountains too can have a similar deterring effect. But these two landscape characteristics do not absolutely protect a region from tornados, as many myths have perpetuated. Tornados recorded in places like Maine, Washington state and the New York City area are stark evidence of that.

The NOAA estimates that there are 1300 tornados in the United States on average each year, more than anywhere else in the world. Around 55 of them roar through the state of Oklahoma.

Other Tornado Hotbeds

Tornados have been reported all over the world, and some of the world's most tornado-prone areas are in regions with similar combinations of geographical, topographical and meterological conditions to those of Tornado Alley.

Dixie Alley
The lower Mississippi valley from Texas east through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, and as far north as Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, has lately been seeing a lot of tornado activity. Tornados in Dixie Alley tend to occur in the fall when the jet stream from the Gulf pushing warm, moist air is more powerful, and often come at night and/or wrapped in blinding rain, making them more difficult to detect and thus potentially more deadly than Tornado Alley storms. Notable Dixie Alley twisters include the 2011 storms that hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama (EF4) and Joplin, Missouri (EF5)—considered the deadliest tornado the United States has ever endured.

Florida
According to NOAA data, between 1991 and 2012, Florida averaged 66 tornados annually, behind just Texas (155) and Kansas (96). The Sunshine State, however, gets more press for its susceptibility to destructive tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as frequent thunderstorms. All of these can and often do spawn tornados when they move over the peninsula. They don’t get much notice because they are typically weak funnels.

Serranias del Burro
The Coahuila state of Mexico is home to the Serranias del Burro, the mountainous region that makes up the northern lobe of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range. It is prone to supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornados similar to those observed in Tornado Alley. Typically though, these storms cross the border (over the Rio Grande) into the U.S. and produce tornados there.

Canadian Tornado Alley
Tornados occur most frequently in the strip of southern Canadian provinces that border the United States. Provinces east of the Canadian Rockies like Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, which can still get a breath of that warm Gulf air, are susceptible. Ontario gets another kind of licking, particularly in the south in the summertime, due to the cool breezes that blow off the Great Lakes and interact with warm summer air.

Bangladesh
Nestled at the head of the Bay of Bengal, this sea-level southeast Asian country is prone to tornados and cyclones much like Dixie Alley and Florida. A tornado that hit the cities of Daulatpur and Saturia in 1989 is widely considered to be the deadliest tornado in history, having killed as many as 1300 people. Bangladesh has the unfortunate distinction of being both one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and one of the most tornado-prone—so when tornados strike, they can be far more deadly than in other areas.

Elsewhere in the world, Argentina, South Africa, and Russia are also notable spots for tornado outbreaks, but lack of organized record-keeping makes it hard to determine the extent of their frequency.

Original image
Thinkstock
arrow
Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
Original image
Thinkstock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
Original image
iStock

People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios