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Twister & Tornadoes

Closing out their Natty 'Zasters series, the Ghouls discuss the horrors of Tornadoes. Gabe explains how accurate the film is to tornadoes and how Twister had such a beneficial impact on storm science? Kat explains what you should do in the event of wind murder. Remember to grab your shoes and your helmet!

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Media from this week's episode:

Twister (1996) Director: Jan de Bont

Summary by IMDB: Bill and Jo Harding, advanced storm chasers on the brink of divorce, must join together to create an advanced weather alert system by putting themselves in the cross-hairs of extremely violent tornadoes.


Twister: Inspiring Future Storm Chasers

Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Twister is a fun movie and I was genuinely spooked by it as a child. There used to be a Twister Ride at Universal Studios in Florida. I refused to go in because I was so afraid, despite having gone on Jaws that same day. Eventually, my mother convinced me and it turned out to be really boring. It just blew wind on you and showed you the cow flying. I was pretty embarrassed.

Growing up in Florida, we would have tornado drills at school and I recall one summer when I was little where I was panicked because my parents were out late working during a tornado warning. The woman who was taking care of me at the time had us sitting in the bathtub with a mattress over us. Stressful stuff but we survived. I’m more familiar with hurricanes and their effects. Again, because I’m from Florida. One year in high school we missed about a month of schooling because of 4 consecutive hurricanes. My uncle had to use a boat to get out of his house and we didn’t have power for quite some time. We lived off of those army dehydrated food packets and our neighbors shared their generator with us. It was quite the time.

I love the Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, and Wicked but I can’t say I am too knowledgeable about tornadoes. Anywho, let’s get into my section and ask those key questions about the film.

Does it accurately represent the horrors of a natural disaster?

When I was watching the film and the credits came up I was expecting to see a title screen explaining how this is based on a true story and that Dorothy, the device in the film is a real thing that scientists made to help predict tornadoes. There is no title screen, however, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an article titled, NOAA tornado scientists inspired 'Twister' creators 20 years ago,

In an effort to collect weather data from inside a tornado, NOAA researchers created the TOtable Tornado Observatory (TOTO), named after Dorothy’s little dog from the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” During the 1970s and ‘80s, several groups from NSSL and the University of Oklahoma tried to deploy TOTO, but never scored a direct hit.

TOTO was retired in 1987, but not before it inspired screenwriters Michael Crichton and Ann Marie Martin to develop a story around a similar device.

In the film, Dorothy is a device that houses hundreds of little sensors that would be released within a tornado. The whole film is about them chasing the Tornadoes in an attempt to get Dorothy to the right place at the right time to get gobbled up by a tornado and distribute their sensors to gather information about its behavior to hopefully be able to predict them easier. This is similar to the device TOTO.

Furthermore, the film went above and beyond to be as close to scientifically accurate, while still being entertaining and fun, by incorporating real scientists in the script design. In that same article the NOAA explains,

To make sure their script was as realistic as possible, the screenwriters, along with producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, consulted with scientists from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. Several actors, especially Bill Paxton, spent a lot of time at NSSL to get a feel for the coordination needed to be successful in tornado experiments. Actual tornado researchers took many of the actors out on a real tornado chase.

If you’re like me and wondering if Dorothy or TOTO worked, currently scientists continue to study tornadoes using different technology to improve prediction and ultimately save lives. These days, they have smaller devices that are easier to deploy in large numbers into tornadoes and have successfully collected a wealth of data for this purpose.

However, even with all they got right there’s still a bit that was dramaticized for excitement. In an article on Screenrant titled Is Twister A True Story? How Accurate The Movie Is To Real Storm Chasing by Kara Hedash, they explain that the film took some liberties with our abilities to predict this specific natural disaster. The warning in the opening scene mentioned the possibility of an F5 tornado on the way; the strength and wind speed can't be confirmed until after the tornado makes landfall. Their ranking on the Fujita scale is determined by the amount of damage and track of destruction. However, the problem with the opening scene was also the fact that it took place in 1969 and the Fujita scale wasn't invented until 1971.

They go on to mention how the tornadoes were also based on true events, The Vane (via Gawker) noted that the final film's tornado, which took out Jonas and some of his team, was eerily similar to a tornado that hit El Reno, Oklahoma, in 2013. It quickly grew to a record 2.6 miles wide before abruptly changing direction, taking many experienced storm chasers by surprise. Three of the chasers were tragically killed in the event.

The Vane also explains that tornadoes don’t occur the way they do in the film, Here's Everything They Got Wrong (and Right) in the Movie Twister,

Tornado outbreaks don't usually start one day, last all night, and go straight into the next day without stopping. They explode during daytime heating and usually wane through the night, not starting up again until the following afternoon.

It’s also noted that the way the characters react during the Tornadoes were inaccurate and actually not safe or recommended. For example, we see Jo and Bill take refuge under a bridge - super dangerous! Do not do this! Also, when one of the bigger ‘nadoes shows up the group ushers the people at the drive-in theatre to a flimsy building that is readily ripped to shreds. Also don’t do this. Every time they ran away from a tornado I was screaming that they need to find a ditch because that’s what's in my brain as the tactic to survive.

The article on Screenrant goes on to also explain how the film has ultimately affected meteorology, Not only did it inspire a new generation of those interested in science and weather, but it also led to a vast increase in enrollment for meteorology programs. John Knox from the University of Georgia once referred to the increase of enrollment as the "Twister Effect."

Also, similar to Japan Sinks, it highlighted the need for this scientific discovery and helped with funding initiatives. It showed the importance while still being fun entertainment. The real scientists appreciated the film’s impact so much that when Bill Paxton died, they had a little tribute for him where they used their GPS trackers to form the letters "BP".

This is to say that even with some of the scientific liberties in the film, it had a positive impact on the science community and ultimately achieved a goal similar to the one our protagonists were attempting to do. This film helped save lives from tornado destruction.

What is this film trying to teach us about humanity?

I enjoyed the motivations behind the protagonists of this film. That it was because they’d experienced the horrors of tornadoes and wanted to protect others from it. So they put their lives on the line to do so. It was a refreshing approach to what I usually assume is a rather adrenaline-junkie motivated field of work. There is certainly a bit of that with the larger group being composed of wacky and nerdy people who love the chase but when it really came down to it, you could see their passion was to help people. When they were facing demise at the drive-in, they worked to get everyone to safety (not the most safe place but the idea was there). And their clear anger towards their rival stormchaser who’s “sold out” to Big Weather showed that these were the underdogs with benevolent motives. They weren’t in it for the money. I really love that we have this positive representation of heroic scientists who weren’t dismissed by the higher-ups. Their challenges were in the work itself, not an institution that diminished their needs or the severity of the situation. It’s refreshing after watching a series of films where many people simply ignored the warning signs for the impending natural disasters. In this, no one doubted tornadoes would come and that they very much needed to find a way to predict them.

The film also only features the destruction of a town and potential loss of life rather minimally. It mostly focused on fun action sequences with our heroes and only showed us the destruction to remind us of their motivations. It’s not gratuitous or a spectacle which I’m thankful for.


Horrors of Tornadoes: Don't Forget Your Shoes or Your Pets

Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

What is a Tornado?

A tornado is defined by the National Severe Storms Laboratory as a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it is hard to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, dust and debris. Tornadoes can be among the most violent phenomena of all atmospheric storms we experience.

What to do in a Tornado?

If you were to find yourself in the vicinity of a tornado, there are seven things you should never forget. We thank the Weather Channel for their article 7 Things You Should Never Forget When Tornadoes Strike for this information.

1. Figure out a safe place to ride out the storm

The following things aren’t safe: Mobile Home, Car, flimsy buildings (aka anything built recently).

Places that are safe: A sturdy building that has been around for a minute and by existing indicates it has survived tougher things than this tornado.

2. Get away from windows and get underground

Windows are your enemy during tornados and heavy wind/hail. Being near a window puts you at risk of shattered glass or debris hitting you. The safest place to be is as close to the earth's core that you can get. If inside a building, getting to the basement and centering yourself in the building as much as possible. The article describes this as putting as many walls between you and the storm as possible.

3. If a tornado appears while you're on the road …

Get out of your car and get as far from it as possible (the tornado can use your car as a projectile to attack you so avoiding this is ideal). Find a ditch and lower yourself as much as possible, covering your head. NEVER go under an overpass.

4. Put on your shoes – and a helmet

This one is one that didn’t even occur to me and makes a lot of sense. If you have notice of this weather, having your shoes on could save you from the fallout of the storm where you might have to walk through debris with nails, glass shards and splintered wood. It also recommends wearing a helmet, as head trauma is common if you were to take a direct hit from a tornado.

5. Keep your pets on a leash or in a carrier, and bring them with you

Your pets are a part of your family, and you should make sure they are with you when you are hiding from a storm. Putting them in a carrier can protect them from damage and ensure that they are safe with you.

6. Don't leave your home and try to drive away from a tornado

Tornadoes can lift cars, so being in a car is the worst place to be me. Tornadoes also shift quickly, and being stuck in traffic, or even being perpendicular to the tornado could result in you being unexpectedly swept away. Being in a house is much safer.

7. Know your severe weather terms

Severe thunderstorm watch: Conditions are conducive to the development of severe thunderstorms in and around the watch area. These storms produce hail of ¾ inch in diameter and/or wind gusts of at least 58 mph.

Severe thunderstorm warning: Issued when a severe thunderstorm has been observed by spotters or indicated on radar, and is occurring or imminent in the warning area. These warnings usually last for a period of 30 to 60 minutes.

Tornado watch: Conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms and multiple tornadoes in and around the watch area. People in the affected areas are encouraged to be vigilant in preparation for severe weather.

Tornado warning: Spotters have sighted a tornado or one has been indicated on radar, and is occurring or imminent in the warning area. When a tornado warning has been issued, people in the affected area are strongly encouraged to take cover immediately.

Tornadoes are terrifying why? How likely will they happen?

I think anything described as nature being violent is reason enough to develop fear from it. The destructive power of tornadoes are the root of this fear, that they can destroy everything you’ve built in a matter of seconds. That there is no running from them. There’s also an unpredictability that plays a role, in that the tracking of tornadoes is less fine tuned then say a hurricane. The formation can happen unexpectedly and the damage can remove the roof from a house, throw a car, destroy a neighborhood.

How likely tornadoes occur is dependent upon where you’re located.

The US seems to be a hot bed for tornadoes, with over 1000 recorded each year. Specifically in “Tornado Alley” located in the Midwest. While any state is able to have tornadoes, some states are hit harder. Specifically in 2011, Alabama was struck by an EF-5 tornado which is classified as the most intense a tornado can be.

How can you realistically prepare for something so sudden? Understanding the set up for a tornado is important. There are conditions that make tornadoes more likely to occur. The kicker is it’s hard to tell when, where, how intense, and how many tornadoes a thunderstorm can create.

Conditions are ripe for tornadoes when the air becomes very unstable, with winds at different altitudes blowing in different directions or at different speeds—a condition called wind shear. The first result is a large thunderstorm.

Inside the huge thundercloud, warm and humid air is rising, while cool air is falling, along with rain or hail. All these conditions can result in rolling, spinning air currents inside the cloud. Although this spinning column of air starts out horizontal, it can easily go vertical and drop down out of the cloud. When it touches the ground, it's a tornado . . . and a big problem to anything in its path.

The winds inside the spinning column of some tornadoes are the fastest of any on Earth. They have been clocked at over 300 miles per hour! Sometimes the spinning column of air lifts off the ground, then touches down again some distance along its path. It seems all very willy-nilly and makes you wonder “why them and not us?” Or, just “why us?”

It makes me think of avatar the last air bender. Wind is really strong and people need to respect Ang more.


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