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13 Fascinating facts about extreme weather

13 Fascinating facts about extreme weather

4 min read

From tornadoes to sandstorms, mother nature sure knows how to wreak havoc upon Earth. Here are 13 amazing facts about extreme weather conditions 
1. What’s in a name? Plenty, when meteorologists assign them to hurricanes and typhoons. It’s a practice that began in the 19th century, when a British meteorologist living in Australia started naming storms after politicians he disliked, as well as Polynesian women. Using female names caught on with US meteorologists in the 1950s; weather reports included sexist cliches about “temperamental” storms “flirting” with coastlines. Male names were finally included by 1979.
2. The association with destruction tends to make some storm names unpopular baby names, which is what happened to Katrina after a Category 5 storm with that name devastated the US state of Louisiana in 2005. A very damaging storm may have its name retired, and some years there are enough storms to run through the 21 alphabetical names (Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used). The World Meteorological Organisation keeps a list of backup names prepared for that eventuality.
3. From cows lying down when rain is on the horizon to birds that fly lower prior to a storm, there are plenty of theories that animals can predict the weather. One that’s proven is that coastal sharks swim deeper during the drop in barometric pressure that precedes tropical storms. Sometimes animals are the weather: waterspouts or tornadoes can pick up critters and carry them long distances, leading to accounts of frogs or fish falling from the sky, like the anchovies that rained down on San Francisco in 2022.
The great white shark
4. When ice forms on trees, the weight of branches can increase 30-fold. In 1998, the freezing rain of a devastating ice storm in eastern North America brought down millions of trees. The ice layers also collapsed enough electrical wires and cables to go around the world three times. Power outages left more than 5 million people in the dark—some for as long as 30 days.
5. Blizzards can be equally destructive, especially when they happen in unlikely places, like Iran’s 1972 blizzard—called the worst in history. Almost eight metres of snow fell over nearly a week, covering 200 villages and killing a reported 4,000 people. But “once-in-a-generation” storms are happening more often as polar winds meet warmer-than-usual winters. Cold snaps and record daily snowfalls could become more norm than outlier.
6. After bursting onto the scene in the 1970s, the disaster-movie genre—with hits like The Swarm and The Poseidon Adventure—really hit its stride in the 1990s (Twister grossed nearly US$500 million in theatres). Since then, disaster movies have stagnated, possibly because we feel ever closer to life imitating fiction. The 2021 film Don’t Look Up served as an apt commentary on climate change and society’s collective reluctance to act.
7. Rising average temperatures are contributing to more heat waves and larger storms. Earlier this year, Cyclone Freddy hit parts of Africa and lasted a record 34 days. Human activity is known to compound the disastrous effects of extreme weather directly, too, like in western Canada when the torrential rains of 2021 in areas that had been clear-cut led to deadly mudslides. Major flooding in Germany and Belgium in 2021, and Australia’s unprecedented bush fires of 2020, were also caused by climate change.
8. When forest fires follow drought, bark beetles can make the fires even worse by turning wooded areas into fields of tinder. An infestation along the west coast of North America, from the Yukon to Mexico, killed more than 102 million trees in California alone. To make matters worse, trees can secrete chemicals called terpenes—which are highly flammable—as a defence mechanism against insect invasion.
9. Lightning sprites make the skies glow with jellyfish-like shapes during thunderstorms, from the Chilean Andes to Israel’s Negev Desert. The crimson lights are produced by electric discharges in the mesosphere and their name is thought to be inspired by Shakespeare’s mischievous fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
10. Sandstorms occur when strong winds sweep across dry desert landscapes. In 2021, Mongolia’s southern province of Dornogovi experienced a record 20-hour sandstorm. These storms can sometimes trigger an apocalyptic-seeming “blood rain,” a rare event that occurred in Spanish skies in 2022. This red precipitation was caused by dark sand being carried from the Sahara Desert and mixing with water before falling back to earth.
11. Intense heatwaves have a way of making society go off the rails. They can melt power lines and buckle railway tracks, which happened during the UK's 2022 heat wave. People also tend to lose their cool: studies show that violence spikes as our bodies heat up, possibly due to a drop in serotonin and an increase in testosterone, which can make us more aggressive.
City skyline during an intense heatwave
12. The US experiences 75 per cent of the world’s tornadoes, with about 1,200 reported every year. And “Tornado Alley,” which runs vertically through the middle of the country from South Dakota to Texas, gets the brunt of it. In 2013, a record 4.2-kilometre-wide tornado hit El Reno, Oklahoma, with never-before-seen ground speeds: 476 kilometres per hour!
13. Thanks to computer technology and global data sharing, weather forecasts are improving in accuracy, giving residents more time to seek safety. But some people still run toward danger: amateur and professional storm chasers track high-impact weather and gather invaluable meteorological data—and perhaps a viral video or two. An episode of the 2021 documentary series Wild Canadian Weather followed the adventures of Prairie Storm Chasers. And DutchTReX, a storm-chasing group based in the Netherlands, travels to the US each year during tornado season in search of the perfect storm. 
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