Supercharged 'Tornado Alley' breaks records as powerful storms spawn whirlwind clusters

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  • U.S. sees record-breaking run of multiple-twister days as severe weather pounds more than a dozen states.
  • A new Heritage Minute for D-Day tells the story of a beloved Canadian commander who served in both World Wars.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Tornado season

After a slow start, tornado season in the United States has suddenly become supercharged, with 500 twisters touching down over the past month and 12 consecutive days with eight or more of the devastating whirlwinds.

The record-breaking run of multiple-twister days was cemented by a tight cluster of tornadoes that swept through Indiana and Ohio early on Tuesday, killing one person and injuring at least 130. By day’s end there had been 27 reported tornadoes, with more wind storms in Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Forecasters are warning of further danger today, with the U.S. National Weather Service saying that parts of 13 states and 40 million people are at “enhanced risk” of severe storms.

A resident of Trotwood, Ohio, inspects the damage following powerful tornadoes on Tuesday. After several quiet years, the past couple of weeks have seen an explosion of tornado activity, with 12 straight days where at least eight tornadoes were reported to the U.S. National Weather Service. (Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

So far in 2019, the United States has recorded 935 tornadoes. That’s well above the average of 743 reported by this point in the year during the decade between 2005 and 2015.

And there have been at least 38 deaths this year across eight states — 23 of them coming from a wide and long early March twister in Alabama — the most since the disastrous 2011 storm season, when 552 fatalities were recorded.

This year’s lengthy stretch of severe weather is due to a high-pressure area over the Southeast that has been pulling warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico into the central states where it’s mixing with cold air from the Rockies, generating lines of powerful thunderstorms.

It’s a volatile situation that will continue until at least the weekend.

A man cleans up debris in a neighborhood after a tornado in Jefferson City, Mo., on May 24. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

But there’s also the question of whether climate change is somehow creating more of the deadly windstorms.

Studies show that changing weather patterns are pushing “Tornado Alley” — the traditional Great Plains twister hotspots that include Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska — south and east into Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri. The root cause is dry, desert air drifting further eastwards than it used to.

And it means greater danger, since the new tornado states are more densely populated, and have more “weak-framed homes.”  

Perri Hovey is comforted by her mother Brooke as they visit the memorial to her friend Taylor Thornton and other tornado victims on March 6 in Opelika, Ala. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

There are also indications that even if the annual number of tornadoes is holding relatively steady, the number of days with multiple twisters is growing as more powerful storms spawn larger “clusters” of the whirlwinds. For example, there were 55 tornadoes observed on Monday, and the past 12 days have seen double the long-term average of twisters generated during the season.

This all fits with the pattern of increased atmospheric instability from climate change, with more moisture and heat in the air and warming sea and land temperatures driving weather.

However, it has been hard for scientists to reach a definitive conclusion, since long-term data on tornadoes remains sketchy compared to other weather phenomena. Decent records only date back to the 1950s, and specialized radar technology that helps pinpoint and track the storms only came into widespread use in the 1990s.

Complicating matters is the fact that there remain good and bad tornado seasons. For example, the deadly twister that hit Alabama in March was the first EF-4 category storm — packing winds up to 273 km/h — in two years. And 2019 marks the first 500-plus tornado year since 2011, even as temperatures continue to rise.

Trucks lifted and scattered by a tornado are piled on top of each other at a dealership in Jefferson City, Mo., on May 23. (Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

Some of it may just come down to the current limits of science. Climate and weather models look at wide geographical areas, while tornadoes usually travel along narrow tracks for a relatively brief period. And even the most modern weather forecasting systems typically provide little more than 10 minutes warning before a twister touches down.

This means that most tornadoes are still clocked by eye-witnesses, with the rise of cellphone cameras helping scientists get a clearer picture of when, where and how big.

Which helps explain why a map of Canada’s tornado hotspots — southern Ontario and the Prairies — looks pretty similar to where much of the population lives, clustered close to the U.S. border.

The current thinking is that Canada, which has about 60 reported twisters each year, may have as many as 150 “missing tornadoes,” thankfully tearing up remote forests and empty fields rather than town centres.

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‘The prototypical quiet Canadian’

A new Heritage Minute for D-Day tells of a beloved Canadian commander who served in both World Wars, Harry Forestell writes.  

It’s been 75 years since a crowd of New Brunswick farm-boys, shop-workers, teachers and fishermen waded ashore under fire at Juno Beach in Normandy. Now their role in the allied invasion of Europe, the beginning of the end for Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, is being celebrated by a new Heritage Minute.

Produced by Historica Canada, it focuses on the North Shore Regiment of New Brunswick and the sacrifice of one man — Major John Archibald MacNaughton.

Major John Archibald MacNaughton of New Brunswick served in both World Wars. (MacNaughton Family)

A 43-year-old recruit at the beginning of WW2, MacNaughton had served in the First World War and done his duty. He could have taken a pass on World War 2, but instead at the age of 47 he led the men of “A” Company — many of whom he had trained as militia teenagers back home — during the single greatest military action of the war.

“He was the prototypical quiet Canadian, you know?” says Historica CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith.

“He didn’t make a lot of noise. He just was ready to do whatever it took. But he was, to me, symbolic of all those who just without question went over and risked their lives.”

Archie MacNaughton was killed by enemy gunfire as he led his company inland from Juno Beach on D-Day. He’s buried at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery.

The National has exclusive excerpts of the new Heritage Minute and we’ll tell you more of MacNaughton’s story tonight, part of our lead-up to full coverage of the D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations next week.

– Harry Forestell

  • WATCH: The story about Major John Archibald MacNaughton and “A” Company, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

Programming note

Due to Stanley Cup finals, The National will likely be delayed tonight on the CBC Television main network. It airs at its usual time on CBC News Network and online.

A few words on … 

The true, true north.

Quote of the moment

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

– Special Counsel Robert Mueller underlines the conclusions of his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Charging Donald Trump with obstruction of justice was “not an option we could [legally] consider,” he told the media this morning.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller makes a statement Wednesday in Washington about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • 16 charged in Bangladesh for burning girl alive (BBC)
  • Quebec education minister calls out school for putting autistic kids in closet (Montreal Gazette)
  • Congo Ebola response must be elevated to maximum level, UN told (Guardian)
  • Amnesty accuses Myanmar military of new war crimes in Rakhine (Agence France Presse)
  • Nxivm trial: sex cult used spyware to monitor Bronfman (NYTimes)
  • Hamilton couple create $100 million endowment for health research (CBC)
  • Boris Johnson to face court over Brexit claims (Reuters)
  • ‘Egg Boy’ donates to Christchurch victims (Deutsche Welle)

Today in history

May 29, 1970: Canada’s first comic book store

Comic Book Guy has existed for even longer than The Simpsons. Here, the CBC takes a tour of one of the country’s first comic book stores, Memory Lane, in Toronto’s Markham St. Village. “Now it’s above ground,” says the proprietor, “Captain” George Henderson. “People aren’t embarrassed anymore about admitting they collect comic books.” Still, spending $250 1970 dollars on a then 30-year-old Batman #1 issue would have been a pretty canny investment. A beat-up copy is now selling for $39,000 US on eBay.

In 1970 a store called Memory Lane makes a business of selling old comics, sometimes for surprising prices. 2:25

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