Are Tornado Alleys a Myth?

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Somewhere in the 20th century tornadoes got lost up an alley. Several alleys, in fact. The first was the infamous prototype, Tornado Alley. Then there was Dixie Alley, Hoosier Alley and even a little byway called Carolina Alley. But are these alleys really backed up by science or are they quasi-accidental outgrowths of the history of tornado science? This is not exactly the sort of question meteorologists have a lot of time to ponder when tornadoes are touching down and tearing through cities and towns. So really, meteorologists mostly work with the alleys they have, and occasionally invent new ones.

Jennifer Henderson is no meteorologist. She’s a social scientist from Virginia Tech who took a deep breath and dove into the meteorological deep end: the recent annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in Austin, Texas. She exhibited a poster there that sort of questioned the scientific basis of tornado alleys, as well as kept her eyes open as the very human endeavor of studying, reporting on, and preparing others for the weather unfolded around her.

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“There’s been a group of us social scientists that has been doing this,” said Henderson, who is working on her doctorate at Virginia Tech. “We are just trying to understand human behavior.”

In other words, she is a scientist who studies how scientists do science. In some fields of research the prospect of becoming the subject of research would be greeted with fear and barred doors (yes, that would be foolish and hypocritical, but it’s a sad truth I have personally witnessed). But meteorologists aren’t generally like that. They are a group composed of a significant number who daily stand in front of cameras to advise millions of people what clothes their children should wear to school tomorrow. This is not for the faint of heart. These are people used to being under a microscope.

“I’m surprised and delighted at how we’ve been received,” confirmed Henderson in a phone interview with me during the AMS meeting earlier this month. That kind of acceptance is especially useful when you are suggesting that Tornado Alley is more of a construction of history than a finely-tuned tool for helping people stay out of the path of tornadoes.

As she wrote in her AMS meeting poster, Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley are concepts coined by members of the meteorological community, specifically, Tornado Alley by Fawbush & Miller in 1952, and then Dixie Alley by Dr. Allen Pearson in 1971.

“But no universal definition of either concept exists; they shift, expand, and shrink with different publications, authors, and purposes. They are sociopolitical rather than scientific concepts,” Henderson explained (you can see her poster here).

The thing about the original Tornado Alley, she said, is that once it was established, it became the scientific standard against which other alleys were defined. The concept of a tornado-prone “alley” is a natural outgrowth of 20th century meteorological history. Tornado alleys are terms that have become “scientized,” she told me. “Scientization transforms sociopolitical concepts, ideas, and other phenomena into metrics that can be standardized and measured.”

Among the ways Tornado Alley was scientized is that in the decades after the term was coined, meteorological events in Tornado Alley have been described as “classic.” What’s more, technology and the science for studying tornadoes is largely based on Tornado Alley, not other tornado-prone areas, and most tornado research remains focused on Tornado Alley. So it is a self-reinforcing concept.

PHOTOS: NASA’s Extreme Weather Photo Contest

This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is good to be aware of the line between science and the history and culture of science. One is the research itself. The other is the human context of the endeavor, which is anything but precise and not necessarily even logical.

IMAGE: A very strange alligator-head shaped cloud forms to the right of a large tornado, under the massive supercell near Hill City Kansas, June 9, 2005. The portion shaped like the alligator head is a form of inflow cloud, just forming itself into this rather rare shape. The head clearly had its eyes on Hill City, right under its nose. (Mike Hollingshead/Corbis)

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