Frequency and Danger of Tornadoes in Chicago
Some Chicago residents hold the (unfortunately mistaken) belief that the city is never hit by tornadoes. This is actually untrue, as many tornadoes have been known to hit the aptly named Windy City over the years. Exactly how often do tornadoes hit Chicago?
The total number of confirmed tornadoes in the Chicago area between 1950 and 2010 is 120. Of these, eight were rated 4/5 on the EF scale. This is the latest official data available from the State Climatologist Office for Illinois.
What is the EF scale?
The EF scale is a rating for the windspeed level, and thus danger degree, of a tornado. A rating of 4 means winds that are between 166 and 200 miles-per-hour. A rating of 5 means winds over 200 miles-per-hour.
The deadliest tornado in recent Chicago history occurred in 1967 when an EF-4 tornado killed 33 people. This twister mainly hit the Palos Hills and Oak Lawn areas. The event is still remembered to this day, particularly in the memories of residents of Oak Lawn.
This incident was closely rivaled in 1990, when a tornado killed 29 people in Plainfield. Thankfully, there have been significantly less tornado-related deaths in Chicago since that time due to big improvements in warning technology and procedures.
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Why do some Chicagoans think the city doesn’t get tornados?
Serious tornados in Chicago are relatively rare, and the lighter ones that hit more commonly may just be written off as a particularly windy day in the Windy City. However, there are a few persistent urban legends that some residents cling to to justify their belief in a tornado-less metropolis.
Some tornado-deniers in Chicago believe that Lake Michigan acts as a buffer against twisters. While it does decrease the likelihood in early spring, in May and June the breeze coming off the lake actually increases the tornado threat.
Other citizens believe that tall Chicago buildings create a barrier against tornado winds. This is also mistaken, as studies show that wind accelerates when zipping through urban canyons.
Finally, some individuals believe that the Chicago pavement absorbs so much sunlight energy that it creates a heat bubble over the city that stops storms from coming. Actually, the heat would increase the intensity of storms instead of diminishing it.
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Are tornadoes a danger to Chicago?
The good news is that, while tornadoes do hit Chicago, the probability of them actually causing a lot of damage is low. Most tornadoes only make a path of damage a couple of yards wide and last ten to twenty minutes. So, while Chicagoans should be aware of the potential danger of this midwestern meteorological foe, by following the necessary precautions everything should be just fine.