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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thunder and the Thrill*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA  Tribune-Democrat
May 15, 2011
as "Twisters: Frightening, yet fascinating"

I’ve always been fascinated by weather.  I grew up in the Midwest – “Tornado Alley”-- a million-cubic-mile severe weather laboratory.  During the spring and summer months, I watched, engrossed, as dark, ominous cloud masses boiled up from the southwest.  The winds gusted, bending trees and sending loose objects flying.  Thunder roared; lightning flashed.  Rain gushed from the sky like a waterfall, sometimes accompanied by the clattering of hail.  And in the middle of it all, the hair-raising sound of sirens spooling up.

Sure, it was scary.  But I couldn’t tear myself away.

A few years later, I was a Boy Scout on a 10-mile hike. As we emerged from a forest, we saw about a mile or so to the north a twister touch the ground, tear across some fields and then lift back into the clouds.  It was my first tornado, an awesome and frightening, yet exhilarating experience.

I wanted to be a meteorologist.  (I once thought that weathermen were called “meter-ologists” because of all the meters they had to read.)  But alas, my brain remained opaque to advanced mathematics.  Instead, I became a storm spotter, and for the last 18 years I’ve been a student of the sky.

There is a terrible beauty to a thunderstorm; symmetry and incredible power.  On the prairie, you can watch them from afar as they form, mature, and dissipate. I would watch them drift along the horizon, majestic to the eye, even knowing that beneath them, havoc is being wreaked.


It begins in the heat of the afternoon.  Cumulus clouds begin to throw up towers, tall, narrow cloud masses marking powerful updrafts as the atmosphere begins to de-stabilize.  Warm, moist air lifts into colder, drier air, condensing as it rises.  Condensation adds heat to the atmosphere, increasing the instability.  Clouds thicken, organize, and climb into cauliflower-like masses.  These clouds are made of water droplets.  But when the tower reaches a certain height, the droplets freeze into ice crystals, and become smooth and gauzy.  The upper-level winds blow off these crystals, forming the storm’s characteristic anvil.  Some storms will combine into a giant supercell

Inside the storms, moist air rockets upward, condensing and falling from the front end as rain.  Sometimes, the droplets freeze and collect, bouncing around until they become heavy enough to drop as hail.  In the storm’s southwest quadrant, a line of billowing cumulus clouds, the “beaver tail,” snakes out from the storm.  This is the inflow jet, a river of warm, moist air that feeds the storm.

And in some supercells, at that point where the beaver tail meets the main updraft, a wall cloud may drop from the cloud base.  It resembles a foot, and it will likely rotate.  From this stormy womb, a funnel cloud emerges.  When it touches the ground, a tornado is born.

Tornadoes can be slender and gray, or thick and black.  They can be 100 feet wide at the base, or over a mile, traveling a few hundred yards, or more than 10 miles.  A twister can cross a field and uproot soybeans.  Or it can roar through a town and utterly flatten it.

It can also kill.

A tornado’s destructive power is measured by the Enhanced Fujita, or EF Scale.  An EF-0 tornado can strip shingles and break windows; an EF-5 can completely erase a building, leaving a blank foundation.

Eventually, the cold downdraft wraps around the storm, cutting off the flow of warm air.  Starved for fuel, the storm dissipates rapidly from the bottom up, leaving only a ragged, thin cloud.  Sunlight returns, and what was a violent cacophony becomes a quiet summer evening.  But all around in the sudden calm, shredded remnants of trees, buildings, and vehicles bear mute testament to the power of the now-dead storm.

There is science to be done, and during tornado season, regiments of meteorologists and storm chasers armed with the latest in mobile technology peer into the storms seeking their secrets.  In communities, trained storm spotters look to the skies, ready to sound the warning.  Police, firefighters, and paramedics prepare for the grim task of rescue and recovery. 

And in the middle of it all, a child, born with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a poet will look to the approaching storm, not with fear, but with wonder, and curiosity.

One who will boldly face the mighty supercell and whisper, “Wow!”
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