Environment
South Slave

Researchers head north to study ‘probable’ Fort Smith tornado

Last modified: June 4, 2019 at 8:15am


Fort Smith’s apparent weekend tornado is one of the first north of the 60th parallel, researchers believe – and they are heading to the community to learn more.

Meteorologists now say it’s “probable” a tornado hit the town on Sunday, telling Cabin Radio the funnel cloud has been given a preliminary EF-1 rating on the tornado severity scale – where 0 is the weakest, and 5 the strongest.

An EF-1 rating is described by the United States’ National Weather Service as a moderate event with wind speeds ranging from 138-177 kph.

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“Given the damage and the meteorological setup, we do believe it was likely a tornado,” said Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist Kyle Fougere.

The EF-1 rating will be confirmed with help from the Northern Tornadoes Project, which is “endeavouring to identify all the tornadoes that occur in Canada” this year.

The project is sending an engineer to Fort Smith on Tuesday to study the damage.

“We find that pretty interesting to see tornadoes occurring up there [in Fort Smith],” said Greg Kopp, a professor of civil environmental engineering at the University of Western Ontario, who leads the project alongside Environment and Climate Change Canada scientist David Sills.

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Conducting a damage survey in the territory is a first for the team. The engineer being sent to Fort Smith is an expert in using a drone to map the path of the tornado.

The engineer will spend at least a day in the community. Part of their survey will include talking to the community about what residents saw.

If you have photos or stories and would like to contact the project you can email ntp@uwo.ca.

Police officers inspect damage caused by the apparent Fort Smith tornado

Police officers inspect damage caused by the apparent Fort Smith tornado. Photo: Ramanda Sanderson

Once the project team has collected all available data, the tornado’s final rating will be determined by studying its path length, photographs, and radar data.

“That usually comes a few days later,” said Kopp, explaining it takes time to analyze everything.

Gathering baseline data

Now in its third year, the Northern Tornadoes Project began by studying tornadoes in the boreal forest north of Lake Superior, then in 2018 expanded to examine tornadoes across Ontario. This year, for the first time, the project is collecting data on tornadoes across the nation.

Sills has used lightning data, population density, and tornado observation statistics to suggest there may be three to four times as many tornadoes in Canada as are usually reported. 

If he’s right, then Canada sees an average of more than 200 tornadoes a year – far more than the 60 or so currently reported.

“Where the people are, the tornadoes are,” Kopp told Cabin Radio, referring to the correlation between tornado records and the country’s road network, “and that doesn’t make physical sense. That’s why we started with this.”

In the North, lower population density may mean tornadoes occur but are rarely seen, and so are virtually never recorded. Alternatively, smaller vegetation could make it more difficult to spot paths of destruction.

Sending an engineer “will help us identify the full path of the event and the full significance of the event,” Kopp explained.

Koop said the start of tornado season in Canada has been quiet this spring – but “then it all seemed to kind-of start this weekend.”

A blue truck damaged in Sunday’s Fort Smith weather event. Photo: Ramanda Sanderson

In addition to the tornado in Fort Smith, there was also “at least one” tornado in Ottawa. The capital was just hit this past September by a tornado, and Kopp said a second tornado in the same place is unexpected.

However, Kopp said researchers will find it “practically impossible” to determine if such unusual weather events are connected to climate change.

While the team believes Canada experiences more tornadoes than are usually recorded, its current goal is to gather baseline data using new collection methods.

“Hopefully that will allow us to see patterns over time,” said Kopp.

“I don’t think we’ll have enough statistics to say much about climate change and its impact on tornadoes, using this method, for probably 50 years.

“So we have to be in it for a long time.”

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