“Mini Tornado” – Is That Like a Small Great White Shark? A Word About Accurate Weather Reporting

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Terms like “mini tornado” or “weak tornado” leave me a little baffled. I mean, that’s like saying “little great white shark” or “diminutive stealth bomber” — using the term “little” doesn’t much change your circumstances. As a meteorologist however, I know there are indeed tornadoes of varying degree. In fact, the Enhanced Fujita Scale is used to classify tornadoes from F0 to F5. The scale represents increasing degrees of damage based on the estimation of wind speeds and post-storm surveys of damage. So yes, “weak tornado” is a valid term and one that can be defined, but that doesn’t mean you want one to visit your neighborhood.

Still, I don’t just look the other way when the media uses the term “weak” or “mini” when it comes to tornadoes and, sure enough, the term was used like salt on grits when a tornado crashed through the town of Townsville in Queensland, Australia earlier today (yesterday, local time) on the northeastern coast of Australia. ABC News, News.Com.Au, The Australian, The HearaldSun, Yahoo, AdelaidNow and more all picked up on the term, though it’s impossible for me to tell who used it first.

The so-called mini tornado caused roof damage to more than 60 homes around Townsville, in Queensland, Australia. Click to enlarge. Photo: Department of Community Safety

Not to move too far away from the Townsville tornado, but it’s telling how the media sometimes works. Like every other form of business over the last 15-20 years, the media has been slashed, chopped and streamlined, doing more with less and often picking up a story and running with it before all the facts are proofed. I saw a story a month or so ago about turbulence and how it affected a Qantas Airbus A380 and injured its passengers — the photo with the story was that of a Boeing 747 (one double-decker plane with a kangaroo on the tail looks just like another, I suppose). The same story from yet another source included a file photo of a Boeing 767.

In similar fashion, one of the news sources for the Townsville tornado (PanArmenian) grabbed a stock photo of a tornado from their file — and it’s a monster! Looks like it’s right off the plains of Oklahoma or Kansas: classic shape and funnel, rain shaft and the afternoon sun over a grassy field. The only thing missing is Dorothy.  The photo was immediately below the headline,  “Devastating ‘Mini-Tornado’ Tears Through Northern Australian City.” Does that look anything at all like a “mini-tornado” to you? According to the article, Australian meteorologists stated the storm could not be classified as a tornado because their was no funnel — yet the picture (and the headline) stands.

Do the headline and photo do justice to the actual situation? If the photo is obviously wrong for the story, might other facts be wrong as well? Click to enlarge. Photo: PanArmenian

I don’t mean to make light of the tornado in northeastern Australia by any means. 13 people were injured, three sent to the hospital and more than 60 homes were damaged. Additionally, trees were snapped in half, power lines were downed and heavy rainfall resulted in localized flash flooding. All of this thanks to a low pressure area centered over Queensland.

As in America, Australia is going through a seasonal transition, weather-wise. Their summer is fading as ours is beginning. As I write this, severe weather is slashing the Plains from Texas to Kansas. In fact, a tornado warning was issued by the local National Weather Service office for a storm with tornado potential just 12 miles from the ImpactWeather office. Strange to think the same thing is happening on the other side of the world, yet this time of year the same thing is happening all over the world: colder air is driving toward the equator and, as it eventually will, encounters the warm humid air closer to the center of the planet. As we know, whether it’s Oklahoma or Queensland, where those air masses clash severe weather may result. Sometimes the tornadoes are “mini” and sometimes they’re monsters.

This time of year, severe weather is not confined to the United States. A low pressure center over Queensland triggered a storm that caused damage throughout the town of Townsville. Some are calling the damage the result of a small tornado. Click to enlarge. Image: ImpactWeather


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