Interview with Bill Gallus, professor of geological and atmospheric sciences

Janavi Kumar

Q: What’s the probability of an F-4 or an F-5 tornado occurring in Ames?

There’s no reason why it can’t happen in Ames. I was out in Joplin [Mo.]  this past week with my team and another meteorologist, and we talked about how it’s just a matter of time before an EF-5 or EF-4 tornado hits Ames. Yes, EF-5’s are definitely rare — there’s about one every year — so it will take some time before such a tornado hits Ames.

Q: This tornado season has set some records in terms of number, frequency and intensity of tornadoes. Do you think this is unusual?

Yes, it is unusual, but it’s related to natural changes that occur every year. It seems that this year, all the weather parameters have come together in such a way to facilitate the kind and number of tornadoes you see this season. This season, we’ve seen more tornado deaths, since there’s been a trend of hits in more populated areas. This has happened solely by chance. Big cities are usually harder to get hit by tornadoes because they take up smaller areas of land. But even though the probability is low, there’s nothing really stopping a tornado from striking a highly populated area like say, Chicago. If Chicago were hit, we can estimate about 10,000 deaths. We’ve seen that this season by chance — that they’ve hit the more populated areas.

Q: What did you learn from the Joplin tornado?

It was indescribable to see what an EF-5 tornado can do. We hope to learn some things that could help save lives in the future, such as changes in the way buildings are built.

Q: If a tornado hit Ames, what kind of damage would we expect to see?

I expect that there would be just as much damage in Ames as we saw in Joplin. In Joplin, the houses were smaller and closer together. I think fewer people would be killed in Ames because the houses are more spread out, but overall there’s be just as much destruction to the town.

Q: Do you think rising temperatures or any factors linked with climate change have caused these occurrences?

No, you can’t say that. All the experts agree that it’s extremely hard to link these occurrences to climate change. Maybe if we see this trend every year for the next 5 to 6 years, we’d be able to gather the data required to link it to climate change. If the Earth’s temperature rises significantly, this is just as likely to increase tornados as it is to decrease them.