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That morning my grandmother took me on a little tour of the house and the yard. I expected to find a scene of total devastation, but everything was in its place: all the trees still had their branches, the flowers were charmingly mussed and gleamed with raindrops. My grandmother made no acknowledgment of the storm at all; as far as I could tell, she thought it was just a typical summer shower.

She was much more interested in showing off all the improvements my father had been making for her on the property. He had even installed an automatic sprinkler system so she could see her gardens watered while she watched from her favorite chair in the living room. By the back fence, though, there was a curious antique.

The slope of a low green mound under a stand of trees was set with a weather-beaten door, like an escape hatch from a grave.


My grandmother explained that this was the storm cellar. I eagerly asked to see it; she was baffled by my interest and seemed rather embarrassed to show me anything so quaint, but she swung the door up with practiced ease. A few crude wooden steps led down into the dark.

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My grandmother picked up a flashlight that was hanging on a post and was pleased to see that the batteries were still good. As we stooped together under the rooted, cool earth of the mound, she shone the light around for me. There were several shelves that held rows of glass storage jars; the glass was so cloudy and sooty it was impossible to tell what was in them.

On one shelf was a box of corroded batteries, a stack of sooty candles, and a fossilized portable radio. In the middle of the dirt floor was a rotting table and a couple of half-collapsed chairs. The whole place looked as though nobody had bothered to take shelter there in decades. The basics of tornadoes are not especially mysterious. The simplest way to think about them is to picture a pot of water on a stove. The essential thing is that the burners on the stove are heating the pot from the bottom up. This means that a layer of hot water is forming below a layer of cold water.

As a result, the hot water is rising up but is being blocked by the cold water above it. At a certain point, as the heat intensifies, bubbles will begin to float from the hot zone through the cold zone to the surface. Instead, a line of bubbles will appear in one specific place and rise up as though deliberately moving in single file.

This line of bubbles is created by a process called convection. Several different things can cause convection, but one of the most common is heat transfer. In the case of the pot on the stove, the column of rising bubbles is transferring the heat through the cold layer without disturbing the rest of the water. The column is formed in this way because it requires less energy than a diffused heating of all the molecules in the liquid, and the rule in the physical world is that whatever takes the least energy is the thing that happens.

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Only as the heat from the burners continues to warm the water does the process of convection at last get overwhelmed, resulting in the general indiscriminate hubbub of a boiling pot. Sunlight warms the earth, and the earth radiates the heat back out into the atmosphere; so it often happens that the lowest layer of air is warmer than the air directly above it. Convection columns will spontaneously arise in the atmosphere in order to transfer the hot molecules near the earth into the higher altitudes. These convection columns may take a variety of forms—the most dramatic and violent being the tornado.

A tornado can be thought of as a last-ditch safety valve; it comes into existence only when the atmosphere is growing catastrophically unstable. Tornadoes can, in theory, form anywhere, and they have been observed all over the world on every continent except Antarctica. But they are most common in the American prairie states. This is because of a fluke of geography. The extreme atmospheric instability that gives rise to the tornado generally happens only when a very large area of hot humid air is overrun by an equally large area of colder drier air.

On other continents, the mountainous terrain tends to scatter flowing air masses into confused and irregular forms, but in the central plateau of North America, where the flat landscape extends for thousands of miles in all directions, vast air masses come into contact with each other with a kind of abstract purity as though in a continent-wide experimental laboratory. More than a thousand tornadoes touch down in America every year. This may seem like an appallingly large number, but in fact almost all these tornadoes are weak and brief-lived.

The average tornado is less than a hundred yards wide, with winds well under a hundred miles an hour; it skims across the ground for a mile or two and dissipates without doing significant damage. Even in the area of the country where tornadoes are most common—Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, the region known as Tornado Alley—a really violent tornado is rare. The history of the American interior is in part a history of tornadoes. Simple shelters from tornadoes by and large do not exist. And while storm cellars used to be common in the rural Midwest, many—perhaps most—have fallen into disuse, and few new ones are built.

They flash past with little or no warning. They can arrive hidden within curtains of falling rain or occluded by clouds of dust and debris. Some have moved at more than sixty miles an hour and have skimmed through entire towns before anyone outside the immediate damage zone even realized they were there. That wreckage, of course, is another reason the tornado can take such a hold on the imagination: tornadoes are so fantastically destructive. Before tornadoes were routinely captured on video, the main visual documentation of their existence was of their aftermath. Some of the earliest photographs and newsreels of the American Midwest are scenes of tornado damage.

The images, even now, are grotesque and horrifying. Schools and churches become skeletal apparitions; heavy Victorian furniture is dangling from trees; a potbellied stove sits in a pig wallow; a town has become a plateau of splintered timber. They seem almost like examples of old American tall-tale art—the surreal postcards once sold as novelties, where solemn men in bowler hats inspected impossibly vast pumpkins and strawberries: comic boasts about the strangeness of life in the American heartland.

But the deepest mystery of the tornado is its actual physical presence. This is something that even now no video image can capture.

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A tornado funnel has an unforgettable quality of the surreal, or the hyper-real: its unimaginable size tens of thousands of feet high , its apparent solidity, and its terrifyingly rapid movement all make it appear like a religious vision. A tornado seems to be not a cloud but some sort of inconceivable created structure—one that reaches up from the ground to the heavens as though extending from this world to the next.

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  4. The truth is that it can be taken back quite a long way: to medieval Europe and to the legend of the Wild Hunt. This was another story about strange huntsmen eternally riding after supernatural prey. In various versions of the legend, the huntsmen were demons, or ghosts, or fairies; they were led by Odin or Satan or King Arthur or all three ; they were hunting a supernatural horse, or a wild boar, or wood nymphs who took the form of windblown leaves. The sight of the Wild Hunt was often taken as a presage of disaster, of a coming war or a plague; almost always it meant doom for the eyewitness, who would be stolen away in sleep to join in the hunt himself.

    The modern-day equivalent of the Wild Hunt can be seen on the highways of the American heartland every spring. They are caravans of station wagons and vans and SUVs, taking atmospheric soundings with their latest meteorological software, tracking dry lines and vortex signatures, searching for the mysterious and elusive terror of the funnel cloud. The contemporary tornado chasers are only the latest in a centuries-deep tradition of obsessive hunting. People rode after funnel clouds on horseback; they traced out damage tracks on foot, through unmapped forests and limitless swamps; they spent years sifting through paper archives, looking for the eyewitness testimony that would bring them closer to the unimaginable reality of the storm.

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    Storm Kings: the Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers

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    Book review: ‘Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers,’ by Lee Sandlin

    Customer Reviews. Average rating: 3. See all reviews. Write a review. Average rating: 4 out of 5 stars, based on 0 reviews. See more. UberButter, February 9, Written by a customer while visiting librarything.

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    LibraryCin, November 12, JackieBlem, May 26, Average rating: 3 out of 5 stars, based on 0 reviews. LonelyReader, August 10, Ask a question. Pricing policy About our prices. We're committed to providing low prices every day, on everything. So if you find a current lower price from an online retailer on an identical, in-stock product, tell us and we'll match it. The real stars of the book are the storms themselves. To read of them is harrowing: entire towns destroyed, bridges torn apart and raised into the sky, wakes of destruction hundreds of yards wide and hundreds of miles long.

    One storm Sandlin describes thusly: "a vast ghost of filthy brown and black. At its base, amid a turmoil of black earth like the wake of a furious motorboat, is a curving, tapered funnel cloud. Lightning flickers there, like the glare and smoke of an eternal battle, Godzilla versus the military.