As you can tell by the risk of significant severe weather in the east central U.S. today, we have definitely entered storm season. The storm chasers across the country have fueled up, wired the chase vehicles, and charged their cameras with hopes of intercepting supercells and the ultimate intercept: tornadoes. There is one mainstream, pop culture event responsible for making storm chasing sexy; the 1996 Hollywood blockbuster hit, TWISTER.
Since avid weather fans follow this page, I’m sure 99 percent of you have seen this movie, but for those who have not here is a brief summary:
The movie takes place in Oklahoma during the month of May in the heart of tornado alley during the height of tornado season. A ballistic atmospheric set-up is poised to cause a major tornado outbreak, and the “biggest series of storms in years.” Right in the middle of this event is Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) who are atmospheric scientists and storm chasers ready to test out their new “Dorothy” technology with hopes of improving lead time of tornado warnings.
The entire movie involves the chasers pursuing tornadoes trying to drop at least one Dorothy “pod” in the path of a tornado. Seems like a decent movie premise already, but there’s oh so much more to the story. There is a dueling storm chase team “in it for the money not the science” led by Jonas Miller and his “pod” Dot3. These are the bad guys; they’re not hard to spot with bad attitudes driving black cars. Therefore, the movie features these dueling storm chase teams trying to drop their respective pods in the path of the tornado first, with an underlying (and predictable) Hollywood-esque love story.
When I tell people I’m a meteorologist often times the first question I get is, “Have you seen Twister?!” When I tell people I’m also a storm chaser I receive this question, “Have you seen Twister?!” (A question so obvious sometimes I’m tempted to answer “no” just to see their reaction.)
There are two very different “Twister” camps among meteorologists. One camp hates and despises the movie due to its glaring inaccuracies and dramatics. The other camp acknowledges the fallacies, pokes fun at the glaring errors, but loves the movie anyway (and can recite every line of the movie by heart). Whether meteorologists love or hate the movie, there is no debate that it has been responsible for getting many young people sufficiently interested in weather to pursue a career in meteorology. That is a great thing!
A proud member of camp two, I wanted to write this article for two reasons: first to provide some comedic relief for the end of the week, but also teach everyone some facts about severe weather using Twister as a guide. After you read this article, for some more Twister humor check out the U.S. Tornadoes article Talking #Twister on Twitter, a hysterical compilation of tweets from a Twister live-tweet event a couple weeks ago.
Below I highlight a few of the most glaring Twister “fails,” – in chronological order- and offer some commentary for each one. Keep in mind, there are many more!
1) The cap has broken!
In the movie: As the storm chase team is camped in a field, one of the field assistants runs over and exclaims, “NSSL says the cap has broken, and towers are going up 30 miles off the dryline!” The problem with this line? The team had already been watching a storm on the horizon for an hour signifying the cap broke a LONG TIME AGO.
Fact: The “cap” is a real meteorological term describing a warm and stable layer aloft, forming a lid or cap that effectively prevents storms from forming. Think of it like a champagne bottle with the cork. Just as a cork rockets off the champagne bottle when enough force is applied, when an atmospheric cap breaks, air parcels can rise freely and explosive storm development can occur.
In the movie: After relaxing at a truck stop drinking lemonade and brawling with bad-guy-Jonas, Bill tells the chase team it’s time to leave. He makes this determination by looking at the sky. He announces it’s “going green,” giving the impression that a tornado is imminent.
Fact: A green sky is actually a real phenomenon with severe thunderstorms. Storms that appear green are usually at least 50,000 feet high and green is the only wavelength filtered through the thick cloud. Any storm that is 50,000 feet tall is likely capable of producing severe weather such as very large hail and tornadoes, but it does not guarantee a tornado as implied in the movie.
3) Judging a book by its cover
In the movie: While driving next to the tornadoes the chasers constantly comment that they’re chasing a, “F2 ladies and gentlemen possibly F3,” or “we’ve got an F3 rope on the ground and she’s a beauty!” At one point Dusty exclaims, “We’ve got one baby! F3!” while standing in a house and hasn’t even seen the tornado in question yet…
Fact: This is perhaps the most egregious error of all throughout the movie and it happens repeatedly! A tornado does not receive a Fujita (or Enhanced Fujita) rating until after the tornado has occurred and the National Weather Service performs a damage survey.
4) The cone of silence
In the movie: While chasing tornado number three Bill and Jo are in the thick of it with large flying debris barely missing them from all angles when all of a sudden the tornado disappears and the sun comes out. Everyone is baffled, and the wise Professor quietly and prophetically whispers, “It’s the cone of silence…..”
Fact: I know I said the subjective Fujita-rating of the tornadoes was the most egregious error of all, but this is a close second. The phenomenon known as the “cone of silence” is real. A real RADAR phenomenon that is! The radar beam is not horizontal, and therefore does not shoot up vertically from the radar dome. Because of this there is a small part of the atmosphere directly above the radar site that does not get sampled. As a result, storms that move directly over top of the radar dome are not sampled, and either look distorted or seem to disappear, only to re-appear on the other side. So, thunderstorms can briefly disappear on radar but do not simply disappear out of the sky!
5) Corn on steroids?
In the movie: At the end during the final F5, mile-wide wedge tornado Bill and Jo drive their truck into a large cornfield with mature corn standing around 6-7 feet tall.
Fact: This is a purely geographical observation, and credit for this faux pas goes to my long-time storm chase driver Kevin Myatt, weather journal blogger for the Roanoke Times. Apparently no one consulted the age-old saying “knee high by July.” During the typical storm season of May and June (the movie takes place in late-May) the corn is barely out of the ground, and many of the fields still look bare. Either Hollywood planted mutant corn, or the more realistic explanation the movie was filmed during the month of September….
6) You will survive a F5 tornado if you strap yourself to a pipe with horse reigns
In the movie: After running for their lives (through the tall corn) as the massive F5 tornado chases them down, Jo and Bill finally take refuge in a tiny wooden shack and strap themselves to a pipe using horse reigns. The tornado literally runs over them obliterating everything in its path…everything except them.
Fact: According to the Fujita Scale, a F5 tornado had winds 262-318 mph and according to the Enhanced Fujita scale any winds >200mph. Most people cannot survive an F/EF5 tornado unless they are underground. Even if the incredible winds did not suck them up and carry them away, they would likely be killed by the immense amount of debris flying around within the tornado.
All strapped in.
Maybe still realistic?
Large debris flying around them now….
Still doing fine. Sure, why not.
For all its fallacies and accuracy failures, Twister is still my favorite movie of all time. For the major weather buffs who like action films where tornadoes, not bombs, cause explosions and weather jargon, rather than profanity, flies without censor, this movie is the best. Remember, the points mentioned in this article are by no means all of them. To quote Ian Livingston regarding the idea of making a remake of Twister in Talking #Twister on Twitter, “Yes please!”
“It’s the wonder of nature, baby!” -Dusty