Forces of Nature - Part 1
Kansans are no strangers to tornadoes. Despite the destruction caused by these large windstorms, many of us are fascinated by one of the Great Plains' most spectacular weather events.
Kansas lies in the middle of the region of the United States known as Tornado Alley. Although these storms can occur anywhere in the country, the worst tornadoes occur most often in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
What is a tornado?
A tornado is a violently spinning column of air that hangs from a cloud and, when fully formed, touches the ground.
How often do tornadoes occur?
Kansas is traditionally among the top four states in number of tornadoes, averaging 55 per year. In 2005 it led the nation, and in 2007 experienced a record number of tornadoes.
Tornadoes are measured using a set of wind estimates based on the damage produced. Meteorologists developed the original Fujita scale during the mid-1970s. It was adjusted and became the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale in February 2007. Most twisters rarely do major damage, falling at the low end of the scale (EF1 tornadoes average around 110 mph inside the funnel).
EF5 tornadoes are at the opposite end of the spectrum in severity, with winds of over 200 miles per hour. The first recorded EF5 tornado in the nation hit Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4, 2007, leveling most of the town. This street sign was pulled from the wreckage. Despite the severity of the Greensburg tornado—it was a mile wide and destroyed 95 percent of the town—only 10 people died due to excellent advance warning from the National Weather Service and the storm spotter network.
Severe weather isn't just damaging. It can be deadly. Over the years, people have tried to predict when dangerous storms might be approaching.
Early Kansans didn't have up-to-the-minute weather forecasts. They looked to the sky or relied on basic instruments (such as home barometers) to tell them when bad weather was coming.
Improved technology has given us better tools to make earlier and more accurate forecasts. Weather balloons are released twice daily from about 950 stations around the world. These hydrogen-filled latex balloons carry instruments 100,000 feet above the earth, measuring atmospheric conditions and transmitting the information back to the weather station.
Whereas early weather radar could only detect the amount of precipitation in the air, today's Doppler radar shows how fast that precipitation is moving. This ability to "see" the wind is what enables the National Weather Service to detect tornadoes and quickly issue warnings. A national Doppler radar network has led to nearly 50 percent fewer tornado-related deaths. The Weather Service also stays in close contact with local officials and storm spotters during severe weather, communicating by telephone and ham radio.
After a tornado has passed, what's left behind usually is in pieces. Nevertheless, relics often are salvaged by survivors as a way of preserving history and informing future generations about the power of these storms.
One of the most destructive tornadoes in Kansas history tore through Topeka on June 8, 1966, killing 16 residents. The Topeka tornado left a 20-mile path of destruction six blocks wide. It destroyed around 800 homes and damaged countless more. The 1966 tornado took direct aim on Washburn University. The twister destroyed five buildings and damaged every other structure on campus. This stained glass window fragment was pulled from the wreckage of the chapel.
A tornado struck Stafford, Kansas, on election day in 1882. It picked up this ballot box, full of ballots for a county seat election, and carried it a half-mile away from the polls. The ballots had been scattered to the winds when the broken box was finally located.
Art and Literature
Artists and authors have long been fascinated by the imagery of tornadoes. Herschel Logan created this woodcut of a twister in 1938. Born and raised in Kansas, Logan was a member of the Prairie Print Makers. This native Kansas art group focused on making fine art prints, often depicting Midwestern scenes.
People around the world associate Kansas with a tornado that never actually touched down in the state. One of the most popular children's books of all time, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, tells the story of Dorothy and her little dog Toto, who are swept off their Kansas farm by a tornado and dropped in the land of Oz. The book and the subsequent movie, The Wizard of Oz (1939), have forever connected Kansas with tornadoes.
Forces of Nature is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.
- Tornadoes - These storms are a Kansas icon
- Wind - Kansas is a windy state
- Earth - Sometimes our rich soil becomes airborne
- Water - Too much or too little is a problem
- Fire - Grasslands depend on fire
Test your knowledge by playing our interactive games.
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org