More twisters than usual

A low pressure system moved from eastern Saskatchewan into the Parklands region of Manitoba on Monday, August 8, triggering severe thunderstorms along the way, reported Weather Network meteorologist Tyler Hamilton. What the severe weather then spawned was at least four tornadoes. One twister was reported between Binscarth and Russell, while a second tornado hit Waywayseecappo First Nation, where several houses were damaged and one home was destroyed. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but close to 70 people were moved to the Russell Inn due to damage to their homes. The Red Cross helped the people displaced by the severe weather. The other tornadoes were reported near Elphinstone and Erickson.

The recent twister incidents in Manitoba prompted one radio announcer to wonder if severe weather was increasing across the province, resulting in more tornadoes than in the past. Possibility, but there is no definitive proof.

Manitoba is at the northern tip of Tornado Alley. In Canada, about 100 tornadoes are reported annually, while the United States suffers through an average of 1,000 to 1,200 tornadoes each year. The average for Manitoba is 10 annually, although Environment Canada scientists say the numbers in Manitoba, as well as Canada, may be even higher since some tornadoes are spawned in isolated areas and thus go unreported. Manitoba tornadoes have a tendency of striking rural areas with low population densities.

But it would be wrong to assume that just because Manitoba is at the lower end of tornado frequency that injuries and even deaths have not occasionally occurred. Historically, Manitoba has unfortunately been the scene of periodic tragedies associated with tornadoes. On August 5, 2006, a woman was killed by a tornado that struck a campground at Gull Lake and several other people were injured. The tornado that struck Elie, Manitoba, in 2007 was an EF-5 twister, the highest on the scale used to measure tornadoes, with winds from 418 to 509 km/h. Fortunately, the Elie tornado, which had the highest twister wind speed ever recorded in Canada, caused no

injuries or deaths.

Historically, Manitoba is rarely the scene of multiple tornadoes striking during a single weather event, but there is always the exception, such as was the case last Monday. And Manitoba tornadoes do not always strike in low population areas. The most deadly tornadoes battering Manitoba occurred on June 22, 1922.

Death and Desolation in Wake of Storm on Portage Plains was the June 24, 1922, headline in the Manitoba Free Press. The report was of a “terrific wind” cutting a swath through Manitoba, not the fact that at least eight tornadoes had touched down, the most ever recorded. Gale-force winds accompanying thunderstorms, raging from the Saskatchewan border to Winnipeg, also caused substantial damages and injuries.

In the case of Portage, the description given was obviously that of a tornado, although newspapers failed to acknowledge that a twister struck the community. Instead, the weather event was referred to as a “gale,” a “cyclone,” a “tempest,” or simply a “storm.”

“For fully five minutes before the storm struck the city,” reported the Free Press, “the air was thrilling with the distant roar of the approach. The sound was similar to that made of the rushing of an express train, only a great deal louder.” The reference to a train rumbling down tracks happens to be one of the common descriptions of a tornado’s sound.

“Hail stones as large as hens’ eggs were driven against the walls and roofs of the buildings with the force of axe blows; windows were crashed in, and the hand of destruction seemed to suddenly reach forth in the whirl of the tempest, rearing roofs from buildings, flipping signs about like tin toys, snapping telephone poles and trees and playing havoc in every direction. The wind travelling in circles could not be withstood wherever it exerted its full fury.”

While the newspaper account said that “scarcely a house in the city” was left untouched, with the smallest damage being twisted eavestroughs and shingles removed from roofs, there is a telling clue as to the nature of the event.

“The storm evidenced innumerable eccentricities. There is no doubt that the tempest was strong enough to have completely leveled the town if it was at the apex of its force. While it moved in an easterly and slightly southerly direction, it was travelling in circles. This is shown by the fact that some of the buildings are destroyed, while far weaker structures close at hand escaped unscathed. The destruction is by no means confined to poorer constructed buildings, but apparently wherever the storm struck a building with its full force, ruin resulted.” When a tornado strikes, structures on either side of the twister’s path of destruction remained unscathed; that’s the nature of the beast.

In 1922, people huddled in their bedrooms for protection from the tornado’s fury, but some were forced outside when their homes were destroyed. “Amid the blinding storm of rain and hail and the terrible sweeping of the gale, figures could be seen on the main street of the city and cries of ‘Help! Fire!’ arose, waveringly above the crash of tearing timbers and the clatter of falling masonry.”

The tornado caused an estimated $2 million in damage in 1922 dollars. While the newspaper described “innumerable” miraculous escapes, it was reported that the roof of the home of William Spencer was carried off and its walls then collapsed crushing his infant daughter. His wife was severely injured. In total, eight people (some reports say five) were killed by the tornadoes that swept Manitoba in 1922.

In 1977, another three people, two adults and a child, were killed when a tornado struck the Rosa-Calowrie area on July 18, 1977. The deadly tornado was reported to have been EF-4 in intensity. Dr. Ted Fujita of the University of Chicago, after whom the tornado scale is named, studied the aftermath of the Rosa area tornado because  of the “unusual intensity” of the twister.

“Buildings were reduced to rubble,” (Free Press, September 3, 1977), “a horse was hurled into a barley field from a pasture a half-mile away and the barley field itself was stripped to bare earth, stands of trees were cracked off and strewn in the counterclockwise swirl of the killer wind ...” The tornado cut a 10-kilometre-long  and nearly one-kilometre-wide swath, levelling houses, tossing steel granaries thousands of metres, uprooting trees, and hurling trucks and graders into the air. A year later on June 20, tornadoes struck Manitoba with deadly consequences. Railway worker, David Waller, was killed when a work train bunk car was lifted off the tracks and shattered by a tornado near Ste. Anne. Another 23 people were injured by the tornadoes.

Are there now more twisters occurring in Manitoba? Climate change may be contributing to more severe weather events, but it’s still a matter of speculation that the province has become the scene of increased twister activity in recent years. In fact, it will take several years to determine if a trend has emerged.