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Monday, June 14, 2010

Strange storm stories unveiled at the Durham

Randy Cerveny (Photo by Andrea Ciurej)

As an opening to the Durham Western Heritage Museum's new temporary exhibits "Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters" and "Nebraska Storm Stories," Randy Cerveny of Arizona State University gave a presentation on his latest book "Weather's Greatest Mysteries Solved!"

Cerveny, a professor of geographical sciences, rather than touching on climatic events that shaped the Earth's history, focused primarily on the strange weather stories that have boggled the minds of humans and storm chasers alike, ranging from the effects of lighting to surging hurricanes.

For example, if you're outside during a thunderstorm and your hair is standing on top of your head, you might want to seek shelter.

"You're about to be the bottom of a lightning bolt," Cerveny said.

Lightning, which reaches 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, strikes the shoes off of its victims.

Cerveny said the our feet are the sweatiest parts of our bodies. When lightning strikes a human, the sweat on their feet turns to steam and has an explosion effect, which kicks the shoes right off of their feet. This is why humans who have been struck by lightning are most always found without their shoes on.

"When lightning strikes, weird things happen," Cerveny said.

Lightning also has the ability to strike more than one object or creature at one time. This is so because lightning's charge surrounds the object it strikes, rather than going through it.

Cerveny told the story about a herd of sheep in Utah. They all huddled underneath a tree to take cover from an incoming storm. Lightning ended up hitting the tree, killing all 835 sheep. It took three days to clean up all of the bodies.

"Lightning also tends to go for high objects," he said.

In lieu, Cerveny told the story of Old Pitt, an 102-year-old circus elephant who died by lightning strike.

A severe storm approached Dillion, Mont., the site of the Beaverhead County fairgrounds, where the Cole Brothers Circus was set to perform.

The circus owner had grouped Old Pitt and the other elephants on the fairgrounds to shelter them from the storm. However, lightning struck Old Pitt and knocked her over, killing her instantly.

The elephant was honored with a ceremony and a grave now marks the site where Old Pitt died.

Flooding has the ability to cause phenomena of its own.

Cerveny told the story of a North Carolinian Methodist church that was carried for miles during a storm that brewed in September 1876.

A tide and strong winds carried the church, an old structure built on brick piers, was carried from the lot it was rebuilt in and drifted down a road to a corner, bumped into a general store, took a sharp right and headed down another road for two more blocks until it reached the corner of Church Street. The church then took another left, crossed over a canal and settled in the center of a property the church was originally denied to be built on.

The church, originally called Methodist Episcopal Church South, was renamed The Church Moved by the Hand of God.

At the end of his presentation, the Fairbury, Neb., native said it was great to be back in Nebraska, since Arizona primarily consists of a dry climate with little action.

"You guys actually have weather," he said. "It can be both fascinating and deadly."

Here are other storm stories Cerveny spoke about the night of his presentation:

Tornado Stories - 
  • In 1955, a 9-year-old South Dakota girl was riding home on her horse when she crossed paths with a tornado. The tornado picked her and her horse up and carried them 1,000 feet (over three fences) and finally dropped both of them back onto the ground. After tracking her down, Cerveny spoke with the woman in this story and she said this did, in fact, happen.
  • The strength of an 1896 tornado was so strong that winds forced a wood board through an iron bridge in St. Louis. After tracing down images from the storm, Cerveny found a photo with the wood board forced into the bridge.
  • A chicken's feathers are not plucked by a tornado. When chickens are frightened, their fear enables them to lose feathers.
  • A tornado drove through Grand Island, Neb., and demolished a liquor store. However, some of the alcohol was spared and was unaffected by the storm. Cerveny mentioned that it is often unsafe to resell products that have survived a storm because they could be contaminated. Being a storm chaser who followed this particular storm, he was able to risk quenching his thirst with the spared liquor.
Hurricane Stories
  • The winds during Hurricane Andrew were so strong that a wood panel shot through the bark of a palm tree.
  • During Hurricane Camille, 23 college students gathered for a Hurricane Party on the third floor of the Richelieu Apartment Complex in Mississippi. This party involved stocking up on alcohol that was to last until the end of the storm. The idea was to drink and party as the storm was taking place. At the storm's end, none of the students survived and only one resident of the apartment complex lived. That resident was found in a tree located five miles away from the initial site of the complex.
Richelieu Apartment Complex before Camille 

Richelieu Apartment Complex after Camille

Snow Stories - 
  • Large chunks of snow can be blown into a snow roller, a rare phenomena caused by strong winds. Snow attempting to take this form must exist on ground covered by a layer of ice that the snow is unable to stick to. This layer must be covered by wet snow and a temperature near the melting point of ice.
Photo courtesy of alpinestateofmind.com
  • Ice fog, which consists of ice crystals, can form in cold areas where the temperatures are 40 degrees below zero.
Hail Stories - 
  • Hailstones of all sizes have objects embedded inside of them. This is so because the ice particles that make up the stone need a surface to latch onto to take form. Cerveny showed a picture of a hailstone that he had cut open and found a ladybug inside of it.
  • A hailstone in Coffeyville, Kan., was recorded at 17.25 in. with a 5.6-inch diameter. It weighed in at 1.67 pounds, making it the largest on record.
  • In June 2003, a hailstone in Aurora, Neb., was recorded having an 18.75-inch diameter. This hailstone then became the largest on record.