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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz Commentary

The South was ravaged by tornadoes and severe storms last week.

Could a killer tornado outbreak strike here?


In a word: Yes.

The question is posed in response to the possibly unprecedented events of last week when tornadoes ravaged the South for three straight days and nights. On the third of those days alone, hundreds were killed, thousands were injured and some communities were literally erased from the Earth.

And yes, it could happen here.

The atmospheric ingredients that most often lead to tornado development include:

  • Very warm, humid air near the ground
  • Cooler air several thousand feet high in the atmosphere
  • A dramatic change in wind direction and increase in wind speed with height (wind shear)
  • Approaching low pressure several thousand feet up in the atmosphere
  • Approaching cold front near the ground

The more of these ingredients that are present, the higher the probability of a tornado outbreak.

The good news for us is that these ingredients most often come together in the Plains and South. When the ingredients are present across Wisconsin, they're typically not in quantities as high as they can be to our south and west. So, it is less likely that Wisconsin would be affected by a massive tornado outbreak than say Oklahoma, Kansas or Alabama.

Still, there's what's "less likely" and "typical", and then there's what's possible. And it is possible for these ingredients to come together across the Midwest.

The biggest tornado outbreak on record affected states as far north as Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. The 1974 so-called "Super Outbreak" spawned nearly 150 tornadoes which killed over 300 people and injured over 5000. The most noteworthy tornado of that outbreak is probably the one that nearly eliminated Xenia, Ohio from existence. Obviously, Xenia is much farther north than Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the community that may have taken the worst of it last week.

The bottom line is that it's a probability thing and he probability of multiple, long-track, devastating tornadoes swarming across Wisconsin is lower than it is in the Plains and the South.

But, it's not zero.

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