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You say tornado, I say ... tornadic squall?

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Freya Petersen

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Storm 'like a freight train'

Tornadoes destroy homes at Bundaberg with an "unbelievable" storm that "came out of nowhere" and is causing widespread devastation across Queensland.

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As gusts of wind began forming tight circular patterns around the Bundaberg area late yesterday, the existence – or otherwise – of tornados in Australia became a topic of heated debate.    

Many Fairfax readers took exception to the use of the term, labelling it as an Americanisation and preferring the term "cyclone", "tornadic squall" or even "whirly-whirly". 

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, however, sanctions the use of the term, stating on its website that: 

A road sign flies through the air as a tornado hits Moama. <i>Picture: Jenna Natalizio</i>

A road sign flies through the air as a tornado hits Moama. Picture: Jenna Natalizio

"While both tropical cyclones and tornadoes are atmospheric vortices, they have little in common. Tornadoes have diameters on the scale of hundreds of metres and are usually produced from a single thunderstorm. A tropical cyclone, however, has a diameter on the scale of hundreds of kilometres and contains many thunderstorms.

"Tornadoes are primarily an over-land phenomena as solar heating of the land surface usually contributes toward the development of the thunderstorm that spawns the vortex (though over-water tornadoes have occurred). In contrast, tropical cyclones are purely an oceanic phenomena - they die out over-land due to a loss of a moisture source. Lastly, tropical cyclones have a lifetime that is measured in days, while tornadoes typically last on the scale of minutes."

The BoM's explanation of tornadoes goes on to describe the conditions needed to form one, including "an intense, sustained updraught; strong wind shear... and strong winds at cloud-top level". 

Water spout off Avoca.

Water spout off Avoca. Photo: Channel Seven

While taking no issue with the use of "tornado" specifically, one reader named Kate insisted that: 

"There is no such thing as a 'mini-tornado' and the media needs to stop using it. 'Hurricane' and 'typhoon' are regionally specific names for a strong 'tropical cyclone'."

She's right there, according to the BoM, which adds that "hurricane" is used in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline, or the South Pacific Ocean east of 160E, while "typhoon" is used in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, west of the dateline.

Kate later adds that she holds a "Bachelor's degree in atmospheric science and a Masters thesis on tropical cyclone forecasting".

The suggestion that "tornadoes" might not exist in Australia prompted Lynne of Melbourne to comment: 

"Really? My nephew had just stepped out onto the street in Bargara when the first 'non-tornado' hit today ... So far today: one of these figments of our imaginations at Bargara, two at Burnett Heads, another at Coonar, and one headed for Maryborough. I dread to think of the damage there might have been if we did get real tornadoes."

Neal, of Cairns, was less circumspect:

"'We don't have tornadoes in Australia'... What a load of rot. We do indeed. Though I suspect these ones started as water based systems (water spouts) due to the nth east feed and ran ashore. Conditions are perfect for them and they may not be the last with this low. For the record an entire street was smashed by a tornado in Townsville not long ago and another was filmed will inland on the Atherton tablelands last year.'

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term stems from the mid-16th century definition, denoting "a violent thunderstorm of the tropical Atlantic Ocean," which perhaps comes from the Spanish tronada, or "thunderstorm".

One Australian expert who concurs with the use of the term tornado - and the BoM's description of how they form - is John Allen, a researcher at the University of Melbourne who has recently completed his PhD on the topic of severe thunderstorms in Australia. 

"The word's been around for far longer than the Americans have been using it - it's been around in European records since the 1600s ... and there are examples even further back," he told Fairfax Media.

"London had one in the 1600s, there's examples on the European continent quite regularly.

"If they're a rapidly turning area of wind to a cloud - sometimes with a condensation funnel, sometimes not - they're a tornado. It doesn't matter how they form - they're still a tornado."

However, Mr Allen warns that the prefix "mini" is probably "inappropriate" when used in connection with a tornado, warning that it may downplay the seriousness of the weather event.

"There are examples of people being killed quite regularly in the Australian records," he said, using the examples of Nhill in Western Victoria in the 1897 and Nevertire in western NSW, destroyed at the turn of the century by a tornado.

65 comments

  • I say Tornado and I am from Australia.

    Commenter
    Branco
    Date and time
    January 27, 2013, 1:16PM
    • Agreed and can assure you re the quote about Nhill. I live very nearby and it wiped a lot of the town out.
      Still get's talked about.
      I think people are being misguided because they are a rare occurrence in Australia. These hitting look a bit bigger than a 'wirly wirly'.
      Stay safe, I'm sure Cando has it all under control, just hope there's enough workers left to assist. This might be just the wake up call he deserves. Hope he doesn't think the same about CC as his best mate in Canberra does!

      Commenter
      A country gal
      Date and time
      January 27, 2013, 6:16PM
    • "Mini-Tornado" sounds hopelessly vague, and unscientific. There are now scientific scales for classifying these things, the Fujita scale, which rates them from F1 (least destructive) to F5 (total obliteration to ground level). But they are all tornadoes, regardless. Australian tornadoes rarely, if ever, reach F5; F3 or F4 is as high as we ever get. From newsclips the recent Queensland events are no more than F4, while very damaging the basic structures of houses are still there. Are the BOM people up to speed with this classification system? Or don't it matter?

      Commenter
      Mati
      Location
      Thornton NSW
      Date and time
      January 27, 2013, 8:13PM
    • From the Met Office in Britain: "On average, around 30 tornadoes are reported each year in the UK, although these are generally much weaker than their American counterparts. However, there have been a number of notable exceptions – such as the Birmingham tornado on July 28 2005 which left a significant trail of damage."

      Commenter
      barfiller
      Date and time
      January 28, 2013, 7:55AM
  • This is what it takes to get some sanity into reporting of these phenomena. A tornado is a tornado is a tornado. Yes we have them occasionally. There are no 'mini-tornadoes'. They are a figment of uneducated newsroom journos' imaginations.

    Commenter
    Grant
    Date and time
    January 27, 2013, 1:21PM
    • Agreed. Tornados, cyclones/hurricanes and willy willys are all completely different things. Willy willys have the cyclic movement, but don't form from a storm cloud and can even be seen on sunny days. Tornados form from storm clouds They can happen all over the world, I believe (deffinately in Aus, Asia and Europe anyway) - it's just that they're more common in North America.
      Isn't it best to call it wh'at it actually is instead of avoiding the word because of some myth that they don't happen here? If journalists were reporting "twisters", then maybe people's complaints would be justified...

      Commenter
      isabel
      Date and time
      January 27, 2013, 7:33PM
    • Grant, that is quite a tautology in your final sentence. :-)

      Commenter
      Mike
      Date and time
      January 28, 2013, 10:17PM
  • Just keep on producing another 500 million tonnes of coal this year that produces another 143 billion tonnes of Co2 emissions and sit back and watch the show as billions are spent on yet more infrastructure repairs. Alternatively you can demand that Gillardism change its ways and begin financing the construction of solar salt power stations otherwise known as Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). CSP producers no Co2 emissions and saves billions of litres of water, it requires no fuel other than the sun while producing 24/7 base load power as proven in Spain. Meanwhile Queensland ports and coal mines in the Galilee Basin will expand coal production to 800 million tonnes annually.

    Acute idiocy at every level of Australian culture demands what we deserve from mother nature?

    Commenter
    Pen of hrba
    Date and time
    January 27, 2013, 1:25PM
    • Oops, sorry the emissions from 500 million tonnes of coal is approximately 1.43 billion tonnes of Co2 emissions and not 143 billion, I forgot the dotty.

      Commenter
      Pen of hrba
      Date and time
      January 27, 2013, 2:27PM
    • Here we go, its all down to global warming. Australia has been the target of cyclonic conditions due to its geography for 'billenia'. Cyclonic lows travelling down the east coast have been recorded since white man first settled here. Just accept that and hold your bullets for real global warming debates. Ah shucks just burnt my toast, damm that global warming.

      Greg

      Commenter
      Greg
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      January 27, 2013, 2:30PM

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