It was too serene. Birds were chirping, fluttering in their usual way somewhere just out of view. Mosquitoes were buzzing. The softly rhythmic but nearly continuous rumble of low and deep thunder was one of the only signs of danger.
In front of Justin Hobson, however, history danced in a field. A majestic tornado that was almost methodical in its weaving patterns. Despite its refined appearance, it was no weakling, which it illustrated by occasionally tossing a truck or shredding a building.
The Elie, Manitoba, tornado was rated an F4 — at first. That in an of itself would have put the twister among the top most-destructive tornadoes. But additional investigation showed the unthinkable: It was actually an F5 super-twister, on Canadian soil no less.
The tiny town of Elie lies near the heart of the Trans-Canada Highway, an east-west route crossing the southern part of the country. Nestled in Canada’s prairie, a largely flat and semiarid region, it’s about 25 miles west-northwest of Winnipeg. It’s 60 miles north of the border with the United States, or a little more than 200 miles north of Fargo, N.D.
Like the northern Plains of the United States, the seasons here are winter and not winter. Summer can scorch, occasionally delivering temperatures near and past 100-degrees Fahrenheit. However, cooler and drier is the norm. Average weather in late June is about 70 for a high and 50 for a low.
June 22, 2007 dawned atypically warm and muggy in Elie.
A low-pressure system was passing to the north, and hot, soupy air overran the area. Elie sat close to the triple point, where the warm front, cold front and dry line intersect — frequently right in the vicinity of the center of low pressure. Spin.
Hobson, an independent storm chaser and a meteorologist now with Environment Canada, was an undergraduate student of meteorology that day. He was just hoping to see something.
He recounted: “There was no chatter of major tornadoes at work. Just the possibility of them.” In fact, “ingredients were more favorable the next day for strong tornadoes,” he said.
Hype over the next day aside, June 22 looked ripe, and Hobson was excited to chase. Models insisted on the risk of storms for days before.
Arriving at the rapidly maturing supercell, a wall cloud appeared. Tendrils reached out of its rotating mass. Wall clouds, now also known as Murus, are often a precursor to tornadoes. Within minutes, a slender, writhing twister was born.
From there, the Elie tornado put on a show for about 35 minutes. It barely moved. It looped around. It caused some damage but no deaths.
The twister ended up Canada’s first and only F5 — on the Fujita scale, which has since become the Enhanced Fujita scale. It is still Canada’s strongest tornado on record. F5 winds were suspected to be in the 261 to 318 mph range at the time of rating.
Whatever the wind speed, the end result of a tornado like Elie is not unlike that of a bomb blast. Unthinkable devastation.
While the United States is home to the most fertile tornado country in the world, Canada is runner up.
Dayna Vettese of the Weather Network knows a lot about tornadoes north of the border. Citing research by Dave Sills, et al. — she told Capital Weather Gang that about five dozen tornadoes are recorded in Canada during an average year. “There are, however, big population gaps,” Vettese said.
Given low population density and limited radar, plus dense forests in part of prime severe-weather real estate, there are many unknowns. Vettese mentioned research that has deemed it possible that Canada receives upward of 230 tornadoes per year.
Even in the United States, where the strongest tornadoes tend to hit every few years, they are rare. An F/EF5 is about a 0.1 percent event. But the worst tornadoes are also excruciatingly deadly. The 626 violent tornadoes (F/EF4-5) that have happened in the United States account for 1 percent of all tornadoes, yet almost 65 percent of all deaths. These are not tornadoes to mess with.
Fortunately, the Elie event was about as kind as a tornado of its type can be. While it did hit several structures, including two houses that were swept away, there were no deaths or injuries.
A once-ever kind of thing? Vettese seems to think we shouldn’t bet on that: It is “important to realize that Canada’s Prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) are just an extension of the Northern Plains and thus an extension of ‘Tornado Alley.’ ”
What the Canadian prairies lack is population. This may be part of the reason that violent (4 and 5 on the scale) tornadoes are few there. To get the ratings, damage and eyes are necessary. Vettese concluded that it “is rarer to see large, violent tornadoes in Canada than it is in the U.S., but they do occur.”
Hobson saw it firsthand, and he said it helped shape him. It still lives with him.
Asked where “Elie Day” stands among his chases, now a full decade later, the answer was perhaps not surprising: “top chase to this day.” For someone who has since seen tornadoes like the Campo, Colo., event of 2010, top chase is no small feat, even if that chase included Canada’s top dog.