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Time Passages: Weather changes, power of nature’s storms

It’s the month of June which usually means we’re in the middle of the severe summer storm season here in Minnesota.

Not only in Minnesota but all across the globe we’ve been experiencing a number of strange or devastating weather events that have become seemingly more frequent and violent during the past couple of decades.

Mother Nature has become very unpredictable.

Meteorologists say America’s unusual weather extremes have caused more floods, tornadoes, drought, snowstorms, tropical rain, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and temperature extremes in the past century.

Recently a four-tornado outbreak struck Minnesota for the earliest time on record in March. Out in Seattle and Portland they’ve received 45 inches of rain in the last six months. I don’t think the tongue-in-cheek urban rumors are true that people have been seen walking around with web feet yet. But seriously, down south it seems like the tornado bullseye is targeting more locations almost every week. Not to mention how fast glacier icecaps are breaking apart and melting at both poles.

It seems like we’re entering the age of a new normal for weird weather and about the only thing to expect is the unexpected. And the growing seasons are changing too. A Department of Agriculture news report says long term warming trends indicate Minnesota’s “hardiness zones” have changed, with the levels of plant-killing winter cold decreasing. Just last November and into early December my neighbor’s garden still had an Iris flower in full bloom.

Each April Minnesota observes Severe Storm Awareness Week. Conducted in partnership with the National Weather Service for the past 25 years, severe storms includes everything from lightning, high winds, floods, heat waves and tornadoes. Last November a bomb-like thunder clap detonated directly over the roof of my house. The concussion was so strong that it knocked a heavy shelf right off the hooks of a bedroom wall.

An annual tornado drill is held during the Severe Storms week and for good reason. Tornadoes are the most destructive and deadly storms that stalk plant earth. The United States has the dubious distinction of having the greatest frequency and most powerful of these types of storms. As a photographer, I’d still like to go tornado storm chasing through the Midwest some year.

Although Minnesota is situated on the northern tier of Tornado Alley, the number of tornadoes in the state has risen continually in the last 30 years. During the 1980s decade there were 199 tornadoes reported, and the count rose to 426 during the first 10 years of the 2000s.

Tornadoes took the lives of four Minnesotans during the 1980s, seven in the 1990s and four during the first decade of the 2000s. In Minnesota the month of June typically has the highest number of tornadoes, with over 600 reported since the early ‘50s. One of the worst tornado outbreaks in the state happened on June 17, 2010 when 48 tornadoes slammed the state. Three of them reached EF-4 (166-200 mph).

Some of the most deadly and destructive tornadoes on record to hit the state occurred as follows:

* 1881 – New Ulm, six deaths.

* 1883 – Rochester, 37 deaths.

* 1886 – St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids, 72 dead and 213 injured. Eleven members of a wedding party were killed, including the groom.

* 1918 – Tyler, 36 people killed.

* 1919 – Fergus Falls, 59 lives lost.

* 1939 – Champlin, nine deaths.

* 1946 – Mankato/No. Mankato, 11 killed.

* 1957 – Fargo/Moorhead, 10 dead.

* 1965 – Fridley, metro area, 14 killed, 685 injured, $50 million in damages.

* 1968 – Tracy, seven killed, 125 injured. Debris found in a farm field over 60 miles away.

* 1969 – Outing in northern Minnesota, 12 dead and 70 injured.

* 1992 – Chandler-Lake Wilson, EF-5 with winds over 260 mph. Only EF-5 to occur in U.S. that year. $50 million property damage, one death.

* 1998 – March 29, 13 tornadoes struck the state with the communities of Comfrey and St. Peter suffering the most damage with one death.

As the publisher of a newspaper back then I recall writing about and photographing the aftermath of the 1998 tornadoes and another one that struck the small town of Buffalo Lake in 2003.

From St. Peter I can still smell the distinct odor of torn-up earth and roots when the tornado destroyed thousands of trees that changed the look and landscape in that town forever.

In Buffalo Lake I walked with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his entourage through the streets as they toured the devastation. A friend who lived there had a big tree go right through the house. Inside the home the winds moved a chair clean out of an office room and pushed it down a hallway. But in the next room a pair of baby shoes sitting on a table were left untouched.

Word to the wise: Be prepared for severe weather and stay safe this summer. If you don’t already have one, investing in a weather radio for severe weather watches or warnings and forecasts probably is a good idea.

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