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Why Do Tornados Frequently Hit Oklahoma City?

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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.

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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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

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