View Full Version : 1898 article on tornadoes in Canada

08-27-2009, 02:52 PM
NOTE: One must keep in mind that the following article was written in 1898.
Tornadoes in Canada
Something Interesting About Their Doings in the Lake Region
The Magnificent Fury of Their March -- 600 Miles an Hour -- The King of Whirlwinds -- Queer Freaks -- Remarkable Escapes with Life -- Stepping Out Into Empty Air -- More About the St. Catharines Tornado.
(from the Toronto World, October 6, 1898)
The disastrous tornado which swept across the Niagara Peninsula recently has set people of the province recalling incidents of tornadoes which have occurred in their own neighborhoods or within their personal experience. It appears that these remarkable storms are not so rare in Ontario, and the St. Lawrence Valley as most people imagine, though fortunately they are very rarely accompanied by loss of life.
From a well-known meteorologist, who has given considerable attention to the phenomenon of tornadoes and kindred storms, we learn that no tornado recorded in Canada has equaled the St. Catharines one in loss of life, and probably of property loss. It, says he, was a genuine whirlwind of the Kansas and Missouri kind, such as the tornadoes which caused so much havoc in St. Louis, Mo., at Louisville, Ky., in recent years, and which are so feared in the Central Mississippi States, that in many rural sections the "cyclone pit" or refuge is about as common as the potato pit in Canadian townships, and is fled to whenever a wild ominous cloud is seen rolling up from the western horizon.
A Typical Tornado.
The tornado from west of St. Catharines to beyond Tonawanda, N.Y., seems to have preserved the characteristic tornado appearance and motion. It was a great, widespread, over-hanging, gyrating mass of dark-grey, from which developed a long funnel or elephant trunk twirling with terrific rapidity, curving and twisting, now pausing a moment, then rushing grandly on, here rising a little over the ground to abate slightly its tremendous fury, and then falling again to its destructive work with renewed energy.
The Toronto Storm.
Was the storm that passed over Toronto an outlying part of it? [No, but the size of the hail and rain-drops that fell in Toronto indicate a tornadic commotion in the upper atmosphere that, had it been a little more violent, might probably have shot down to the earth a destructive twirl and perhaps a visible funnel. The hail indicated upward current in the cloud formation of perhaps 40 miles an hour. The Toronto storm seems to have separated from the other cloud mass somewhere to the westward. At Guelph the storm had a distinctly tornadic motion, though the time of its occurrence there precludes the idea that it could have been an earlier stage of the St. Catharines tornado. Sometimes several tornadoes are crossing the country at or about the same time, and sometimes only a few miles apart.]
A tornado varies much in energy in various parts of its course. Sometimes its fury is such that its trunk-like funnel touches the ground for miles together, sweeping away almost everything in its path; sometimes the funnel appears to be drawn up towards the clouds and swings there for miles and the whirling wind beneath it is less destructive. In the St. Catharines tornado the funnel probably did not constantly sweep the ground the whole way from that city to Tonawanda, N.Y., but only at intervals. Three or four miles in the Western States is a very common stretch at a time for such contact, but unbroken swaths of 20 or more miles in length are known, and continuous courses of lifting and falling for even a hundred miles. It is said that in early days of settlement in western Ontario, a tornado crossed from Lake Huron to Whitby on Lake Ontario, making a continuous avenue through the forest, marked by the snapped and uprooted trees lying in all directions over each other; but that this tornado path was exactly continuous or was not due to more than one tornado has not been satisfactorily determined.
Windfalls and Tornado Paths.
Do windfall indicate tornado paths? If so, tornadoes have not being very uncommon in Ontario. Yes, though the disappearance of the forest over much of Ontario has obliterated the old tracks of tornadoes and fires have here and there done the same. They are found in Muskoka as well as in the Ottawa country. As to the frequency of the tornadoes, there is scarcely a summer passes but several are recorded in the press -- though the fully developed waterspout-like funnel is not always noticed. During the present summer sixty buildings were wrecked or more or less injured in Essex County. Last year several were reported, and in late years there was loss of life through them in the Gatineau valley near Ottawa and on the St. Lawrence below Brockville. It is said that it was a tornado that carried away the old suspension bridge across the Niagara River near Lewiston, and here and there nearly everywhere there are stories told by eye witnesses of barns destroyed, buggies, oat-bins and other things carried for miles, and queer personal escapes from the fury of the whirlwind. The cloud-bust on one of the branches of the Thames, that one wet summer caused a serious flood in London, Ontario, was but the sudden down-dropping of a vast volume or rain held up by the furious upward pressure of a tornado cloud. A like explanation will suffice for several other remarkable floods for washouts.
Tornadoes and Cyclones.
But what is a tornado?
It is not a cyclone, which is a widespread storm often hundreds of miles in diameter, such as pass over the whole lake region every week in fall and winter, and are scarcely ever dangerous except to vessels on the lakes. The West India hurricane, and the typhoon of the Chinese seas are also cyclones. The tornado is intensely more terrific in its limited path than any cyclone or hurricane. The wind in cyclones at Toronto has attained a force of 70 miles an hour, and in hurricanes elsewhere perhaps double that velocity. But the tornado reaches in its funnel a twirling force of 300 and perhaps 600 miles an hour, and an upward or lifting power -- even a mile up in the tornado cloud itself -- of 80 or 90 miles. Hailstones over nine inches in diameter are said to have fallen in the St. Catharines tornado. This would indicate, away above the violent whirl of the waterspout-funnel, an uplifting power of about an 90 miles an hour. It is this terrific updraft that holds for a time the vast masses of water that sometimes, not merely pour, but fall in solid streams from tornado clouds and punch holes in the ground six feet deep. The whites squall, the waterspout and the simoom and the dry whirlwind are but feeble in comparison to the tornado, to which in important respects they bear resemblance. With such velocities of twirling and lifting motion the most wonderful feats of carrying horses and heavy articles long distances, and destroying the most substantial buildings are not to be wondered at.
Remarkable Escapes with Life.
And the occasional escapes of people carried away by the storm are explained by the upward pressure in the tornado funnel. The incident of the Merritton man who could not get his arms down to his sides through the upward pressure of the wind, and yet was landed safely on the ground, has many parallels. The American signals service reports that a man in a Western tornado, finding his house one night rocking badly, stepped out doors for safety, but to his surprise stepped into empty air through which he slowly and quite safely descended to the ground against the upward rush of air. A cow tethered on one side of a deep and wooded ravine was found, after the tornado had past, quietly grazing on the other side of the gorge, none the worse for her strange experience.
Queer Freaks of Tornadoes.
But there are other queer freaks of the tornado which in mere force of wind does not explained. Roofs fly off as if by explosion, cellar doors are driven from their fastenings straight against a strong wind; empty corked bottles blow out their corks. The explanation is simple. The barometer has been observed in the tornado funnel at 27 inches; in violent tornadoes it is believed to go several inches lower. If the pressure of the barometer in a closed house or empty corked bottles be 30 inches, the normal pressure, and the house or bottle be suddenly surrounded by the light air of a tornado, with a pressure three inches below normal, the explosive force of the air in the house or bottle is one-tenth the pressure of the atmosphere, or 211 pounds to the square foot, a force doubled or more than doubled in some tornadoes. This explosive force has very much to do with the destructiveness of the tornado.
Some Ontario Tornadoes.
Have you seen any tornadoes?
Yes, replied Moses Oates, our interviewee. I have seen several in the Grand River Valley, within 80 miles of Toronto, and was directly in the path of the tornado that crossed the north end of Gault in July, 1876. It was described as a short column enveloped in cloud above; it sucked water from the River, cleared the riverside of sheds, heavy stones, boats, etc. utterly demolished one of the few houses about its path, shot planks through walls or deep into the ground, and did the usual destruction to trees, sheds, etc. Water poured from it in streams, not rained, as it ascended the slope up from the flats of the town, so densely that I could not see three feet through the downpour. The whole town to the southward suffered injury, and our church was unroofed. For days afterwards the din of hammers was everywhere. The time of the tornado was very unusual, 5 a.m.. I saw the tornado that unroofed Seagram's -- then Randallís -- distillery , and broke into a woolen mill in Waterloo. In cut a forests swath near Berlin, and strange to say, did damage on the north side of its path. At a distance I watched several tornado clouds passing from or on their work of destruction. One which passed near Fergus, I watched at a distance of 25 miles.
How Tornado Clouds Pass.
How wide are tornado paths?
They vary much. The path between sensible winds on the north and south sides is sometimes as narrow as 40 feet; sometimes it measures nearly two miles. Usually the actual width of the waterspout-like trunk is only a few score yards. North of this there is little or no destruction done, but on the south side, from which the warm currents forming the tornado are drawn, winds sufficiently strong to unroof buildings or blow down trees are sometimes felt for a mile or two. The north side of a tornado path is the safest side to run to when one has a choice to make (a dangerous generality - JDR). The tornado usually travels no faster that a railway train. The cloud may often be distinguished at a great distance, at least as a very suspicious cloud. I have never seen one directly accompanied by thunder and lightning, and in the western states the passage is not usually marked by lightning, though it may follow afterwards.
The St. Catharines tornado is, however, reported as attended by a flash of lightning. The tornado comes with sullen roar and generally with a whirling well-defined gray cloud above from which hangs a cone trunk, it may be long, or only barely distinguishable as a drooping conical projection. But I have seen a dozen pendants of this kind hanging from on angry sky at one time, and no tornado took place.
Tornadoes usually occur in the afternoon, generally between 3 and 6 o'clock, but not infrequently after dark. As to season, June is the month in the United States of greatest frequency. There are scarcely one-third as many in the fall as in either summer or spring. In winter they are rare, even in the south. In Ontario they are so far summer phenomena, and the St. Catharines tornado appears to be out of season. It occurred, too, on a day of very ordinary temperature. It is in hot weather -- at least hot for the season -- that tornadoes occur.
The middle Mississippi Valley is notoriously the worst place in the world for tornadoes. In Canada they are scarcely known west of Lake Huron, though one appears to have crossed Winnipeg early in the 1870s. In Ontario and Quebec they occur occasionally, but not nearly so frequently nor of such intensity as even in Ohio, to say nothing of more western states. The North Shore of Lake Ontario is apparently almost exempt from storms that could be called tornadoes. Toronto seems never to have known such a storm.
The tornado, it may be said, rarely stays more than ten seconds in one spot.