At the intersection of Jaws and Twister, the Sharknado series has long since been a humorous and dramatic escape into an alternate meteorological universe. The latest iteration, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming airs Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern on SyFy.
In an era where freaky forecasts are increasingly becoming the “norm,” we find ourselves asking, could this really happen?
Over the years, we’ve all heard what we’d normally think to be tall tales — houses flipped perfectly upside-down and laid to rest on their foundation, pieces of straw embedded in cement, folks carried thousands of feet without a scratch … Yet through some miracle, these seemingly apocryphal anecdotes have somehow turned out to be true. Given that nothing looks to be off limits, what about a tornado filled with sharks?
The verdict: It could happen.
After all, the astonishingly strong updraft wind speeds in storms that produce tornadoes have been known to loft all sorts of bizarre objects, and what’s to stop a couple of smaller sharks from being caught up in the mix?
In exceptional instances, the vertical wind speeds in supercell storms have been clocked upward of 100 mph, more than sufficient to suspend several sharks and toss them around a few times. On July 23, 2010, hailstones the size of bowling balls topping eight inches in diameter fell in Vivian, S.D., lofted by extreme updraft speeds near 140 mph!
A person can stand in winds up to about 80 mph, after which point they’ll tumble. It would take about 100 mph to set them airborne. As such, small sharks are certainly not exempt — because a tornado isn’t picky in what it picks up! The only constraint is weight, because when it comes to what a thunderstorm updraft can support, size does matter.
Of course, unlike Saturday Night Live’s renowned skit, there’s no such thing as a “land shark,” and thus the tornado would be required to pass over a large body of water containing a fairly dense population of sharks. However, this could only happen if the vortex were a waterspout, the marine cousin of the tornado.
Waterspouts come in all shapes and sizes, but most fall into two distinct categories: fair-weather, and tornadic. The former are akin to dust devils, born from ground-based whirls that are stretched vertically up to the cloud base. Winds inside fair-weather funnel rarely exceed 50 mph, though do pose a notable hazard to boaters.
Tornadic waterspouts, however, are an entirely different beast — they are quite literally tornadoes over water, either spinning down from supercell storms parked over the sea or simply whirling from land onto a body of water. Much like their land-based counterparts, these so-called mesocyclonic waterspouts can buffet locales with 150 mph gusts. It is within these rare tempests that the occasional shark may be found.
Oddities like this have happened before– even in the strangest of places. On May 15, 1900, a significant severe thunderstorm with large hail roared through Providence, R.I.; meanwhile, a likely tornado deposited hundreds of fish across a swath spanning several neighborhoods within the city. The fish were reportedly “2 to 4.5 inches long,” and some even were recovered alive! According to the Providence Daily Journal, fish were still being collected as late as 10 p.m. that evening, gracing the local marketplace the next day with a welcome dash of seafood.
Elsewhere, fish-falls have been reported in Honduras, Sri Lanka and Japan, while a shower of frogs and toads occurred in Scandinavia, according to a book published in 1557. More recently, on Nov. 16, 2015, a tornado outbreak near Pampa, Texas, lofted scores of corn-husks and stalks into the sky that became encased in ice and fell as hailstones.
As recently as Monday, National Weather Service Doppler radar was able to discern thousands of birds trapped in the eye of Tropical Storm Emily; in similar instances in the past, critters of flight have become entrapped in the spiraling updraft of a hurricane, eventually succumbing to exhaustion due to their inability to land and “raining” down out of the sky. To date, however, we still have yet to release a forecast that includes “cloudy with a chance of meatballs.”
So, while we probably won’t see any sharknado icons on our local TV station’s seven-day planner, it’s certainly plausible that small aquatic life could be scooped up in a tornadic vortex. So a sharknado? Why not?! After all, what goes up must come down.
Follow Matthew Cappucci on Twitter, @MatthewCappucci.