Once, tornadoes were inconceivable in the north
2011 is turning out to be a historic year for tornadoes. There have been hundreds of tornadoes to date, which have caused massive amounts of destruction along with numerous deaths and injuries. Each day seems to bring news of a large or destructive tornado affecting some portion of the United States.
In late April, a series of tornadoes cut across portions of the southern United States, causing hundreds of deaths and millions of dollars in damage. Birmingham, Ala., was hit particularly hard. On May 22, a powerful twister tore through the city of Joplin, Mo., killing more than 125 people. This was one of the deadliest tornadoes in history. To prove that tornadoes seem to strike just about anywhere, another deadly tornado hit Springfield, Mass., on June 1.
Lately, tornadoes have been just as numerous in the northern plains. Last year, the state of Minnesota led the nation in total number of tornadoes. These tornadoes were not weak either. Four EF4 tornadoes occurred across eastern North Dakota and the northwest quarter of Minnesota. On June 17, 2010, Wadena was struck by one of these EF4 tornadoes. No deaths occurred, but the city sustained massive damages that are evident even today.
Knowing these facts, it is amazing to think that in the middle 1880s the United States Signal Service (the predecessor to today's National Weather Service) believed there was a northern limit for tornadoes in the United States. The northern limit of the "Tornado Belt" was believed to be along the Northern Pacific Railroad line, which ran from Duluth to Fargo to Bismarck (roughly 46 degrees 30 minutes north latitude). The weather experts thought tornadoes did not occur to the north of this line.
However, one destructive tornado event changed all this. June 16, 2011, marks the 124th anniversary of the historic 1887 Grand Forks/East Grand Forks tornado, which shattered the northern boundary of the Tornado Belt. June 1887 was an active month for tornadoes in the northern plains. The first tornado ever photographed in North Dakota occurred at Jamestown on June 6, 1887. In addition, at least three other tornadoes occurred across eastern North Dakota the same day as the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks tornado.
Since the frontier towns of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were located about 75 miles north of Fargo, they were both considered to be well north of the Tornado Belt. Both towns took pride in this fact and were perfectly content to put up with the cold winter months, since they did not have to worry about deadly summer twisters. The railroads also advertised the area as a tornado free zone to help settle the northern plains.
A tornado free zone is an amazing concept to think about from today's perspective. However, tornado research was in its infancy in the 1880s. Back then, most people did not even know what to call tornadoes. Early records and newspaper descriptions termed them whirlwinds, hurricanes, dust devils, or cyclones. People even believed that tornadoes couldn't occur near forks in rivers. Therefore, there were many myths and unknowns about severe weather in the 1880s.
The New Ulm, Minn., tornado of 1881, the Rochester, Minn., tornado of 1883, and the St. Cloud/Sauk Rapids, Minn., tornado of 1886 caused great death and destruction across the state of Minnesota. However, since all three of these tornadoes occurred south of the Northern Pacific Railroad line, people in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks still felt safe -- even though they felt sorry for the poor folks who lived further south. They even contributed to the relief funds for the sufferers of those communities.
However, people in the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks area may also have been turning a blind eye toward the growing evidence against their tornado free zone. The local newspapers carried reports about strange wind storms occurring in the countryside all around them. Rather than dispute the tornado free zone, these communities went to great lengths not to term any of these freak wind storms as tornadoes. When one Minneapolis newspaper described a wind storm at Crookston, Minn., as a tornado, the people of Crookston wrote an angry letter to the Minneapolis newspaper to demand a retraction.
This mythical boundary meant a lot to the local area. It brought people, commerce, and pride to the region. When the tornado hit Grand Forks/East Grand Forks on June 16, 1887, the people were completely unprepared. And it wasn't just the citizens of Grand Forks/East Grand Forks who were shocked, but the entire weather world.
Today's guest editorial was written by Vincent Godon, Nancy Godon and Kelly Kramlich, the authors of "Reshaping the Tornado Belt: The June 16th, 1887 Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Tornado," available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble stores.