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

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With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations

From the acclaimed author of Wicked River comes Storm Kings, a riveting tale of supercell tornadoes and the quirky, pioneering, weather-obsessed scientists whose discoveries created the science of modern meteorology.
While tornadoes have occasionally been spotted elsewhere, only the central plains of North America have the perfect conditions for their ...

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

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With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations

From the acclaimed author of Wicked River comes Storm Kings, a riveting tale of supercell tornadoes and the quirky, pioneering, weather-obsessed scientists whose discoveries created the science of modern meteorology.
While tornadoes have occasionally been spotted elsewhere, only the central plains of North America have the perfect conditions for their creation. For the early settlers the sight of a funnel cloud was an unearthly event. They called it the “Storm King,” and their descriptions bordered on the supernatural: it glowed green or red, it whistled or moaned or sang. In Storm Kings, Lee Sandlin explores America’s fascination with and unique relationship to tornadoes. From Ben Franklin’s early experiments to the “great storm war” of the nineteenth century to heartland life in the early twentieth century, Sandlin re-creates with vivid descriptions some of the most devastating storms in America’s history, including the Tri-state Tornado of 1925 and the Peshtigo “fire tornado,” whose deadly path of destruction was left encased in glass.
Drawing on memoirs, letters, eyewitness testimonies, and archives, Sandlin brings to life the forgotten characters and scientists who changed a nation—including James Espy, America’s first meteorologist, and Colonel John Park Finley, who helped place a network of weather “spotters” across the country. Along the way, Sandlin details the little-known but fascinating history of the National Weather Service, paints a vivid picture of the early Midwest, and shows how successive generations came to understand, and finally coexist with, the spiraling menace that could erase lives and whole towns in an instant.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Tornados, the twisters that early Americans called Storm Kings, grab our attention for several reasons, not least of which is that they can change our lives in an instant. Most of us have seen videos taken by modern storm chasers, but few of us have even an inkling of the meteorologists, amateur spotters, and even traumatized heartland survivors who set the groundwork for our current understanding of these intense funnel storms. Fusing science with first-person tornado accounts, Lee Sandlin's Storm Kings fully earns its publisher's blurb boast of "Isaac's Storm meets The Age of Wonder."

Publishers Weekly
James Espy, the first meteorologist in America, thought of tornadoes as “rapidly rising column of air” that operated according to the laws of steam power, pumping warm air into cold; his lifelong rival, William Redfield, maintained that the storms were “gigantic whirlwind, spinning around a moving center like a top.” Though they were essentially espousing “two halves of the same process,” they were never able to reconcile their differences and find common ground. Sandlin, however, deftly synthesizes and illuminates the duality of his title—both the tornado itself, which early settlers in America referred to as “the Storm King”; and the individuals who made it their life’s work to document, predict, and better understand those despots of the plains. Legendary storms roil throughout the text, from the funnel of fire—or as one eyewitness (whose eyeballs were consequently seared) described it, “the finger of God”—that destroyed Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871, scorching over a million acres and killing 1,500 people, to the Tristate Tornado of 1925, which rampaged for 219 miles across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. On ground level, Sandlin describes mankind’s efforts to comprehend storms, from Ben Franklin’s famous kite experiment to the F1–5 intensity rating system developed by Japanese immigrant Tetsuya Fujita. Sandlin makes talking about the weather much more than a conversational nicety—he makes it come brilliantly to life. 16 pages of b&w illus. Agent: Danielle Egan-Miller, Browne and Miller Literary Associates. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Even before the horrific events in Oklahoma last week, Lee Sandlin’s Storm Kings banished any notion I may have had that it would be a lot of fun to see a tornado up close.  Mr. Sandlin knows how to tell a story, and his gripping narrative, often lyrical and often horrifying, conveys the awesome destructive power of tornadoes as well as their bewildering randomness. . . . Much of the book is devoted to biographies of the often cantankerous figures who advanced and occasionally retarded efforts to record, explain and predict tornadoes. . . . But the stars of the book are the fearsome clouds themselves. . . . Mr. Sandlin debunks many common misconceptions. Don’t waste time opening windows to equalize pressure, he says, because tornadoes don’t explode houses in a vacuum; the winds do the damage. Find a windowless room; bathrooms are good, since the pipes add support. There is no best corner. For emergency shelter outside, a ditch is better than a highway overpass. . . .  [Storm Kings] reads like a police procedural, a 300-year journey of wrong turns and sometimes agonizingly slow progress toward the era of Doppler radar, the enhanced Fujita scale and the funnel chasers bouncing through Tornado Alley in gadgeted vehicles. . . . Scientists should not scoff at the absence of technical detail in Storm Kings. They are likely to learn a lot about the backgrounds and obsessions of their predecessors, who made real science in the fashion of a tornado itself: twisting and meandering, with great energy and much warm air rising.”
—Michael Pollack, The New York Times 

“Thrilling. . . . Sandlin's triumph is turning a historical survey of generations of American tornado scholars, victims and obsessives into something that reads like a brisk novel. It offers an epic scope reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez; vivid, eccentric characters that could inhabit a Jonathan Lethem book; rivalries as intense as anything in Dostoevsky or Archie comics; and wonders as grand as any described by L. Frank Baum (but with better tornado descriptions). . . . But Sandlin's attempt to turn history into entertainment is not alchemy: As he documents magnificently, science and showbiz were intimately intertwined in America's early years. Ben Franklin's fascination with electricity (his famed kite and key experiment unintentionally establishing him as a storm expert) came from watching "Electricians," traveling magicians who did sideshow tricks with static electricity. The lyceum circuit of the early 19th century saw semi-professional scientists give lectures and debates before an everyman audience, the validity of theories determined by audience applause. Even the scientific papers published in the 19th century, at least the ones that proved useful to Sandlin, so valued dramatic, anecdotal accounts that a seaman who witnessed a storm was as welcome as his professor to submit his paper, making academic journals as action packed as an episode of "Deadliest Catch" or "Man vs. Wild." With source material this narrative-friendly, it's no surprise Sandlin's work is as an engaging as any trashy page-turner. . . . Which brings to mind another literary precedent for "Storm Kings." Despite Noah encountering a weather emergency with much more narrative focus, the Old Testament provides a fine example of a book where despite numerous fascinating characters, the least-developed protagonist has proven the most important and influential over the centuries. That's not to imply that Sandlin will sell the billions of copies that that other good book has. But there's a good chance that this exciting study may become a bible of sorts to a generation of tornado aficionados, storm chasers and Weather Channel addicts.”
Chicago Tribune

“Even readers who live far from Tornado Alley will appreciate Mr. Sandlin's amiable style, his wide-ranging, infectious curiosity and the light he sheds on these most American of all storms.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A lively and entertaining account with, as befits its subject, dark undertones. . . . [Sandlin] follows the [tornado] from Franklin and his kite across two centuries of spotters and chasers to the Japanese-born scientist Tetsuya Fujita, who, schooled on the ruins of Nagasaki, invented the rough calibration system evoked by every TV weather forecaster: the Fujita Scale. . . . All this Sandlin spices — if any spice were needed — with hair-raising accounts of famous disasters: the hellish 1879 double tornado of Irving, Kan.; the Tri-State tornado that in 1925 plowed a 219-mile furrow across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, leaving almost 700 dead; the April 1974 upper Midwestern super-outbreak, the worst single tornado event in American history. But the bureaucratic and the political here out-storm the meteorological, at times making our dispute over global warming seem like a polite conversation. The lesson is as clear as one of those still spring mornings when the air is charged with humidity, and as menacing: When science and politics mix it up, invariably the loser is science. And the rest of us.”
Dallas Morning News

“The awe and terror that American weather inspired in early settlers is one of the most compelling motifs of Lee Sandlin’s compulsively readable Storm Kings. . . . Like much of the history of science, the story of this quest is rich with controversy. . . . Sandlin’s book is not simply a historical text about a problem that has been solved by technology; rather, it is a cautionary tale about the frequently unpredictable role that weather continues to play in our lives.”
Christian Science Monitor  

“A fascinating look at all things tornado. . . . Sandlin delves into intense detail giving us wonderful accounts of the history of the National Weather Service, the 18th and early 19th century scientists. . . . an enjoyable book that will change the way we look at these extreme funnel clouds in the future.”
Northwest Indiana Times
Storm Kings is not merely a theoretical or data-driven history of tornados and meteorology. Using his skills as a brilliant storyteller, Lee Sandlin places the reader in the middle of a storm, where he becomes an eyewitness to the helplessness, fear, destruction, and psychological aftermath of tornados. . . . Lee Sandlin uses the old song about “ghost riders in the sky” as a metaphor for today’s amateur storm chasers who continue in the tradition of James Espy and John Park Finley. Professionals and amateurs alike continue their quest—thundering onward across the endless skies. . . . The author takes us along for the ride. Readers will definitely feel its gale force.”
New York Journal of Books

“I have been a meteorologist interested in tornadoes for my entire career. . . . I found Storm Kings a compelling history.”
—Chuck Doswell, Nature
“[Storm Kings] examines not only the science behind the mysterious twisters but also takes readers through some extremely compelling stories of rival scientists in the new field of meteorology. . . . 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.”
The Chicago Reader

“Sandlin deftly synthesizes and illuminates the duality of his title—both the tornado itself, which early settlers in America referred to as “the Storm King”; and the individuals who made it their life’s work to document, predict, and better understand those despots of the plains. Legendary storms roil throughout the text, from the funnel of fire—or as one eyewitness (whose eyeballs were consequently seared) described it, “the finger of God”—that destroyed Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871, scorching over a million acres and killing 1,500 people, to the Tristate Tornado of 1925, which rampaged for 219 miles across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. . . . Sandlin makes talking about the weather much more than a conversational nicety—he makes it come brilliantly to life.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Sandlin offers a lively account of early investigators who, through both “grinding stupidity and unaccountable insights,”  eventually came to understand and learned to coexist with—but never tame—the furious force of tornadoes. . . . [A] well-constructed history of the politics and personalities of weather.”

“If the vast majority of climate scientists are right, the weather is going to become an increasingly important, and threatening, feature of our daily lives. Lee Sandlin's new book is a riveting history of our relationship with the funnel clouds of the Midwest. This is a story we need to know, and Sandlin tells it with uncommon grace and style.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers and the upcoming Revolutionary Summer

Kirkus Reviews
Sandlin (Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, 2010, etc.) offers a lively account of early investigators who, through both "grinding stupidity and unaccountable insights," eventually came to understand and learned to coexist with--but never tame--the furious force of tornadoes. Today, SUVs laden with all sorts of gizmos, plus many "weather tourists," travel the roads of Tornado Alley (Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa), part of a deep American "tradition of obsessive hunting" for the elusive twister. More elusive was hard information beyond folk tales on why tornadoes were so destructive, wiping out towns and killing hundreds in a minute. Sandlin starts his tale with Benjamin Franklin and his casual fascination with "whirlwinds." But the real story begins with James Espy, America's first official meteorologist. In the 1830s and beyond, Espy came up with ideas both accurate and silly: Tornadoes might be caused by convection, warm air rising to meet cold air. Therefore, the climate of the continent could be controlled by the judicious building of very large fires. Espy feuded with other early tornado devotees over matters trivial and substantive before yielding to a younger generation just as contentious. In the late 1800s, John Park Finley and the military's Signal Corps developed a system of weather forecasts. Yet Finley feuded with Henry Hazen, who believed massive dynamiting would destroy tornadoes. All involved seemed to have feuded with Washington politics and bureaucracy, to the point that while America's heartland became increasingly populated, and tornadoes a greater threat, in the first decades of the 20th century, the federal government kept no records of tornadoes at all. While later investigators with more sophisticated technology made significant gains in our understanding of tornadoes, Sandlin's story is really one of how science gets done amid, and despite, clashes of ego and political interference. Well-constructed history of the politics and personalities of weather.
Library Journal
Here Sandlin (Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild) relates the history of meteorology and tornadoes in the United States from colonial times to the present. The subtitle is misleading: it's not a history of tornado chasing but a history of American meteorological science, especially government and military research. Sandlin's narrative style shows influences of James Michener, for he follows his subject through generations of change. The book traces the development of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps and its contributions to tornado science. The author demonstrates that 19th-century meteorology was competitive, with scientists loudly airing their competing theories in the public arena. As people began to migrate into the tornado belt, the need for accurate forecasts increased, yet tornado science lagged until after World War II, when surplus radar units helped improve forecasting. The final chapter relates the author's experiences in a recent tornado chase, creating a surreal and almost poetic conclusion. VERDICT This remarkable and gripping book will appeal to those studying the history of science, the U.S. military, and weather forecasting.—Jeffrey Beall, Univ. of Colorado, Denver Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307378521
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 541,866
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Sandlin is the author of Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild and reviews books for The Wall Street Journal. His essay “Losing the War” was included in the anthology The New Kings of Nonfiction. He lives in Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

Ghost Riders
There is an old country-and-western song my father liked called “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” My father had been born and raised in rural Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years and had spent his adolescence working at cattle ranches in Colorado and Wyoming; in his later life he was fond of saying that he had been one of the last of the old-fashioned cowboys, and he often recited scraps of cowboy poetry or retold the spooky folklore he’d heard from the other ranch hands. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was a perfect example. It’s about a cowboy who has a terrifying vision: he sees the souls of damned cowboys riding through the night in an eternal chase after a stampede of supernatural cattle. One of these spectral cowboys breaks off the pursuit long enough to warn the singer to repent his evil ways, or else, after he dies, he will join them “trying to catch the Devil’s herd across these endless skies.”
I don’t remember my father ever connecting this stampede to tornadoes. But then, he didn’t have to. I made the connection myself the first time I heard him sing the song, and it’s stayed with me ever since. He was constantly telling me scary stories about tornadoes. He made them sound like a regular feature of his childhood landscape. The way he described it, anywhere on the Great Plains, if you raised your eyes to the horizon, you might somewhere in the vast flat distance see a funnel cloud beginning to form. He talked about all the different and bizarre shapes they took: grand swooping curves of impossible architecture, furious little whirlwinds like the clouds of dust above cartoon fistfights. He repeatedly told me about the closest call he’d ever had with a tornado—a blustery summer day when he and his friends had been playing baseball and a tornado had come roaring across the outfield; they’d had to hide in the dugout, clinging to the underside of the bench, to keep from being sucked into the funnel. But his favorite stories were about the nights he and his family had spent cowering in their snug lantern-lit storm cellar as the world outside had torn itself apart in the frenzy of a prairie thunderstorm: at some point his mother would raise a finger for silence, and they’d hear amid the roar of the wind and the crashes and bangs of thunder a sinister new sound, a deep throbbing and a high-pitched shriek like an airplane engine revving up. “And that,” my father would conclude with satisfaction, “was the tornado.”
I was spellbound by these stories, but I was also baffled by them. I never got that clear an idea of what a tornado really was. We lived then in northern Illinois, a place that was supposedly tornado heavy, but I had only seen one unmistakable tornado in my life, and that was in The Wizard of Oz. Few sights in any movie, or for that matter in the real world, have ever scared me as deeply as that. My father had no patience for it, though. He passed through the living room as my mother and brother and I were staring at the television screen in rapt horror, and he lingered only long enough to emit a snort of contempt. “Nah, that’s no tornado,” he said. “You should see a real tornado.”
Each spring the science class at my elementary school would spend a day on the subject of tornadoes. The teacher would show us a filmstrip that had a lot of cartoon images of spiral-shaped clouds looming over prairie farmhouses. There were also photographs of crew-cut men with white shirts, black ties, and horn-rimmed glasses, clustered in muddy fields around weather balloons. But only a few of the images were of actual tornadoes; in those days, the 1960s, a clear photograph of a tornado was as rare as one of a flying saucer.
The filmstrip’s narrator instructed us solemnly on the rules of tornado safety. There was one infallible warning sign that a tornado was coming, he said: the clouds took on a greenish glow. Tornadoes also caused an electrical disturbance that could be picked up by some TV sets, so if your TV screen grew mysteriously brighter during a storm, that was a clear signal a tornado was somewhere nearby. Then he explained why tornadoes were so destructive: there was a near vacuum at the heart of the funnel, so when it passed overhead, the air pressure trapped inside your house burst outward like an explosion. The most sensible precaution you could take, therefore, was to open your windows to equalize the air pressure. After you did so, only then should you take shelter, and the one safe place to hide was the southwest corner of the basement.
The viewing of this filmstrip turned me into a kind of amateur tornado warden. Whenever there was a storm, I kept my eyes peeled for the warning signs. But where were they? Spring after spring, tornado season after tornado season, I never saw a hint of a green glow in the sky. The closest I came to a tornado was one sultry April afternoon when I was twelve: a severe storm came through the Chicago suburbs, and a tornado touched down several miles away. The next day the newspapers ran an amateur photograph: it showed a blurry smear of buildings and streetlights, while against the horizon stood an indistinct gray cone of smoke towering up to the sky like a supervillain menacing a cartoon city. I tore it out of the paper and tacked it up on my bedroom wall, as though it were a wanted poster.
I did reports for school on tornadoes; I had all the key tornado facts memorized so that I could talk about wind speeds and air pressure with the least provocation. One afternoon in late spring when I was twelve, a storm built up in the west, and the sky around it turned a weird sickly yellow. My teacher, who knew about my obsession—pretty much everybody in the school did—asked me seriously whether that color sky meant a tornado was coming. I said authoritatively that yellow skies meant hail; green was the color of tornadoes. It was the proudest moment of my life.
I even had dreams about tornadoes. The dreams were all pretty much identical: they began with a feeling of horrible dread. I knew, with absolute certainty, that a tornado was approaching. I couldn’t see it; nothing about the scene looked sinister; but it was already too late to escape. Sometimes I’d be the only one who knew, and I’d try in vain to warn everybody of the imminence of disaster. It never did any good; nobody would pay any attention to me. The dream always ended the same way: I was standing at a window, looking out at the sky, all hope lost, and just as the tornado was about to appear, I’d wake up.
I think I was at the height of my tornado passion the summer I was twelve. That was when my family went to visit my father’s old home in Oklahoma, where my grandmother still lived. I spent the whole drive there staring at the clouds and expecting each one of them to transform before my eyes into a tornado. But somehow Oklahoma proved to be deficient in tornadoes. The skies were a ceaseless stampede of white cumulus, and some of them did occasionally puff up into thunderheads, but there were no funnel clouds reaching down to touch the earth. The tabletop flatness of the plains was broken by nothing out to the horizon except oil derricks.
I began to suspect that my father had been goosing his memories in order to scare me; he did always like scaring me. The night of our arrival, though, as we sat together on the front porch, a gigantic line of storms came rolling up over the southwestern sky. I had never seen anything in the world so large; it was like a tidal wave about to wash the plains clean. The sight inspired my father with something like nostalgia. This was just the kind of weather, he told me, that in his childhood had sent the whole family scurrying to the storm cellar for the night.
Did that mean there would be a tornado? I asked. It was the wrong question. I couldn’t keep a quaver of fear out of my voice, and however much my father liked to scare me, I was supposed to bear up under it with stoic impassivity. He soon clumped off to bed and left me to the view. I watched for several minutes more as the storm advanced. Little flickers of yellow lightning were bursting silently all along the billows and crests like artillery fire; by the time I went to bed, I could hear the first mutterings of thunder.
Later that night I woke to find that the storm was exploding directly over my head. The thunder was making the walls quiver; the wind was in a fury, and it felt as if necessary things in the house were all bending over and were about to break. Rain rattled the windows like peltings of glass beads. The lightning bolts flared like searchlights. I went stumbling out of bed in a panic and fell forward down the hallway toward my parents’ room. I had the idea that we might have only a few minutes to reach the storm cellar. But at their door I froze; as frightened as I was by the storm, my father scared me more. I huddled up against the doorway and strangely, unwillingly, fell asleep.
That’s where my parents found me in the morning. Neither of them made any remarks about it. If my father had figured out what had happened, there would have been hell to pay, but I caught a break. He and my mother both just assumed I’d been sleepwalking.
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. 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. That’s an inherently unstable arrangement. At a certain point, as the heat intensifies, bubbles will begin to float from the hot zone through the cold zone to the surface. But these bubbles don’t pop into existence randomly, all through the pot—at least not at first. 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. “Convection” is a term for the concerted movement of a small group of molecules within the larger shapeless mass of a fluid or a gas. 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. (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.)
The earth’s atmosphere can be imagined in the same terms. 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. It’s a kind of emergency self-regulating mechanism that funnels huge volumes of hot air upward as fast as possible and restores the atmosphere to equilibrium.
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. My father’s stories aside, the truth is that the majority of people in Tornado Alley go their whole lives without so much as glimpsing one.
The history of the American interior is in part a history of tornadoes. It’s a curious kind of history, though, in that it consists largely of obliviousness and denial. The truth is that while midwesterners are afraid of tornadoes, and lots of them grow up as I did, obsessed with them and having recurring nightmares about them, the Midwest has been settled, developed, and generally overbuilt under the working assumption that tornadoes don’t pose any serious danger. Simple shelters from tornadoes by and large do not exist. The advice about hiding in a corner of the basement, even if it were valid (which, as it happens, it isn’t), can’t be put into practice when the typical midwestern suburban house doesn’t have a basement. 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. Those who are frightened of tornadoes find themselves in a situation like that of my recurring nightmare, of trying to alert people to a danger they won’t recognize.
To the tornado obsessed, the very thing that makes everyone else so complacent is just what’s so frightening: the tornado’s elusiveness. It’s not just that tornadoes are rare. It’s that one can happen right in front of you and you still might not realize what you’re seeing. 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. Sometimes it’s only the amount of wreckage afterward, and the confused memories of the survivors that they had heard some gigantic, mysterious roar at the same instant, that confirmed that there really had been a tornado at all.
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. 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. You can’t help but see it as essentially supernatural.
The man who wrote “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” Stan Jones, said it was based on an old cowboy legend. He’d heard it in his boyhood from an elderly cowhand, and he had no idea how much further it went back. 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. It seems like the latest and most cutting-edge kind of entertainment, but it, too, is a hunt that’s been going on for a very long time. 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.
Most of those early hunters are forgotten now, but they used to be celebrities. James Espy, whose pursuit of the secrets of the tornado led him to be called the Storm King, was at one point the best-known scientist in America; his debates with other scientists were followed by newspapers as though they were boxing matches. John Park Finley traveled the country in the late nineteenth century to lecture on the unsuspected dangers of tornadoes and stirred up so much controversy that his career ended in a highly public shipwreck. And there were many others—professional meteorologists and obsessive amateurs, even a Founding Father, people who risked their lives, wrecked their careers, and lost lifelong friends in poisonous feuds, all for the sake of that ever-receding quarry.
Their stories are mostly buried and have to be rooted out from all kinds of obscure sources: military field reports, privately printed pamphlets, family documents, unpublished memoirs, letters to editors, newspaper interviews, transcripts of courts-martial, congressional testimonies. But from them a strange kind of history does emerge—not a succession of blandly uplifting technological triumphs, but something more ambiguous: a story of doubts and blind guesses, grinding stupidity and unaccountable insight, horrifying violence and mysterious beauty. It’s just what you’d expect from a hunt that’s still thundering onward across those endless skies.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Ghost Riders
Prologue: The Pillar in the Storm 
Part I The Thunder House
    1.  The Electricians 
    2.  A Little More of the Marvelous 
    3.  To Treat Master Franklin      
Part II The Storm War
    4.  The So-Called Tornado   
    5.  The Philosophy of Storms   
    6.  Under the Map     
    7.  One Dead, One Exhausted, One Converted 
    8.  The Finger of God   
Part III Red Wind and Tornado Green
    9.  The Great American Desert   
  10.  The Night Watch   
  11.  Premonitory Symptoms   
  12.  Violent Local Storms 
  13.  How to Escape 
  14.  The Desert Is No More  
  15.  The Book of Failure 
  16.  An Awful Commotion  
Part IV The Mystery of Severe Storms
  17. Canvas and Cellophane 
  18. The Unfriendly Sky   
  19. Visible Effects of the Invisible
Epilogue: The Wild Hunt 
A Note on Sources  

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2013

    Great Read. Not too technical. Great history of the major play

    Great Read. Not too technical.
    Great history of the major players in tornado science from B Franklin to Fujita. Writing style very nice.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2014

    Good Non-Fiction Read

    Non-fiction. I read this for the non-fiction book club at my local library (March 2014). I thought this was a very cool and interesting book, where you do indeed learn about the first tornado chasers as the cover implies. There is also tons of interesting information about how we came up with weather reports and devices for observing weather patterns, how tornadoes behave, and putting an end to a lot of nonsense: like that cities do not get hit by tornadoes, that there is a certain side of the house that is safer, or that opening windows helps equalize pressure (all not true). I would recommend this if you want to learn a little about weather history or if you are fascinated by tornadoes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2013

    A blind shecat

    She came in becouse he was told to. Her blimd blue eyes filled with sorrow.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2013


    She looked at Sparklepelt. "I have failed." She truged back to Lanrete

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2013

    Great book on the history of the NWS

    I recommend this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 17, 2013

    Good read

    Good read

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2013

    A fast-paced scientific adventure that will make you think about

    A fast-paced scientific adventure that will make you think about tornados in a new light. Well-written and filled wiht fascinating detail

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2013

    Solid history.

    Solid history.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2013

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