Posts Tagged ‘Tupelo-Gainesville Tornado Outbreak’

Pleistocene Tornadoes and Windthrow Ecology

February 18, 2017

Unstable weather conditions spawn outbreaks of tornadoes.  Cold fronts collide with warm air causing the chilled air from the upper layer of the atmosphere to plummet, creating swirling winds of great destructive force.  Tornado intensity is classified according to the Fujita scale or F scale for short.  Tornado wind speeds range from less than 73 mph (an F0 tornado) to estimated wind speeds of 261 mph-318 mph (an F5 tornado).  One of the largest outbreaks of tornadoes in recorded history occurred in early April, 1936.  At least 12 tornadoes struck the south from Tupelo, Mississippi to Anderson, South Carolina.  A tornado from this system that hit Tupelo left a path of destruction 15 miles long.  Another tornado from this storm traveled 50 miles from Alabama to Tennessee.  Two tornadoes merged in Gainesville, Georgia, killing 200 people in a factory and a department store.  Overall, this storm system wiped out 454 human lives.

Image result for F5 tornado

F5 tornado in Oklahoma.  I hypothesize storms and tornadoes were much more frequent and severe during some Pleistocene climate phases than they are today, but they may have been less severe during others.

I hypothesize tornado frequency and intensity was greater during some climatic phases of the Pleistocene than it is today.  As far as I can determine, no scientist has ever published a study of paleotornado frequency, probably because there just isn’t any method to collect data about past transient phenomena. Incidentally, I invented the term, paleotornado, in case a scientist figures how to study them.  My hypothesis is conjecture, but I am confident it is correct.  I base it on 3 lines of indirect evidence.

a) Data from ice cores in Greenland shows average annual temperatures fluctuated dramatically during Ice Ages.  There was an alternating cycle of sudden warm spikes in temperature that melted ice dams which in turn released glacial meltwater and icebergs into the ocean, shutting down the gulf stream.  This caused an equally sudden reversal in temperatures.   By comparison today’s climate is relatively stable, yet even with a stable climate, tornadoes form with regularity. When climate changed more rapidly in the past, it seems logical to assume there was an increased frequency of colliding warm and cold weather fronts.  I believe the middle south was an Ice Age tornado alley.  Temperatures in south Florida and the Gulf Coast were warmer than they are today because oceanic circulation ceased and warm water stayed in the Caribbean, but the upper south was only a few hundred miles from the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered Canada and New England.  Cold fronts blowing off the Ice Sheet met warm fronts originating from the Gulf of Mexico in what must have been an exceptionally stormy transition zone.

b) An unusually cold phase of climate, known as The Little Ice Age, occurred between 1310-1850.  Anecdotal historical references suggest storms were more frequent and intense during this time period.  In Europe several storms killed hundreds of thousands of people.  The Little Ice Age is a tiny blip compared to the climate fluctuations of the Wisconsinian Ice Age as recorded from Greenland ice core data.

c) Geological evidence suggests river flooding in southeastern North America was much more severe during the early Holocene (11,000 BP-6,000 BP).  These massive floods caused supermeandering river patterns.  An increase in river flooding indicates an increase in storm activity and hence tornadoes.

Image result for windthrow in Arkansas

Windthrows open up the forest canopy and dramatically change the local ecology.

Tornadoes, thunderstorm downbursts, and hurricanes have a profound impact on forest ecosystems and may be a primary driver of evolutionary relationships.  Areas of forest felled by wind are known as windthrows among ecologists.  Tornadoes can travel for many miles, and they leave long scars of fallen and splintered trees that can be seen in satellite and aerial photographs.  These long windthrows create gaps in the canopy where shade intolerant species can thrive.  In southeastern North America canopy gap formation is beneficial for oak, pine, persimmon, sumac, grapevine, blackberry, composites, and grasses.  Windthrows can become tangles of luxuriant vegetation that provide forage and cover for forest edge species such as whitetail deer, cottontail rabbits, and ruffed grouse.  Fallen rotting timber attracts beetles, food for woodpeckers and other birds.  The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker formerly relied on vast tracts of timber with freshly created windthrows from annual storms.  Unlike extant woodpeckers, they depended upon early colonizing, shallow burrowing beetles.  Snakes and lizards lay their eggs in rotting timber.  Bears tear up these logs, looking for beetle larva, termites, and reptile eggs.  The pits created when trees are uprooted fill with water following heavy rains, and they serve as breeding pools for amphibians.  Most of the organisms that live in southeastern North America evolved to thrive in canopy gaps resulting from wind storms.  Plants able to resprout after sustaining wind damage have a competitive advantage over those species easily uprooted and killed, and the animals that browse and can digest those plants also enjoy a competitive advantage.

One study estimated wind felled 20 square miles of forest per year in pre-settlement forests of Wisconsin.  They also estimated the recovery time for northern hardwood-hemlock forests to erase the windthrow scar is 1210 years.  The recovery time in southeastern forests is probably quicker due to the longer growing season. A tornado can leave a long-lasting impact on the landscape, and wind may be a critical element, along with megafauna foraging and fire, that may explain why Ice Age environments were so much more open than they were in late Holocene environments.


Canham, Charles; and Orie Loucks

“Catastrophic Windthrow in the Presettlement Forests of Wisconsin”

Ecology 1988