Tornadoes have killed people in their Springfield homes and on city roadways over the years and they most certainly will do so again.
Yet, some still believe that living on the Ozarks Plateau — as we do here in Greene County — is a protection from the wrath of tornadoes.
That belief is a myth, according to weather experts.
Keep in mind that not everyone agrees on what exactly constitutes the “Ozarks Plateau,” which geologists sometimes call the “Ozarks Uplift.”
For geologists, the Ozarks Plateau is a designation having to do with shifting tectonic plates under the earth’s surface. The area extends beyond southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas into Kansas and, some say, Illinois.
For others, the Ozarks Plateau is southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas and a little bit of northeast Oklahoma.
Still others define “Ozarks” and “Ozarks Plateau” based on cultural factors, not geographical boundaries.
Nevertheless, by all the definitions of the “Ozarks Plateau,” Joplin is included.
And Joplin suffered one of the most destructive tornadoes in our nation’s history on May 22, 2011.
The twister reached EF5 strength and killed 158 people, with an additional eight indirect deaths.
A full guide to tornado shelters and severe weather safe rooms in Springfield, Mo. The public can access these shelters are available to residents within a 1/2 mile area. Full map, directions and GPS links included in the article.
Plateau has ‘marginal’ impact on weather
In a Nov. 1, 2020, Answer Man column in the Springfield News-Leader, Jamie Warriner, chief meteorologist for KOLR10 and Ozarks Fox, said the plateau has a “marginal” impact on local weather. Warriner has covered Springfield weather in since 2011.
The “spine” of the Ozarks Plateau is Interstate 44, he said.
Springfield has an elevation of 1,300 feet. To the north, Hermitage and Lake of the Ozarks, for example, are at about 800 feet. To the south, Branson has an elevation of 774 feet.
Warriner said the fact we live on a plateau helps him “fine-tune” his forecast.
In winter, he said, the temperatures can be marginally cold enough at the higher elevation to support snow versus a cold rain at lower elevations.
“The plateau’s effect on tornado likelihood is negligible,” he told the Springfield Daily Citizen in March.
Doug Cramer, with the National Weather Service in Springfield, said the plateau does not decrease the likelihood of tornadoes.
“The National Weather Service has confirmed and surveyed several tornadoes that do happen on the plateau, as well as off the plateau,” he said. “They can happen in the valleys.”
In general, a tornado’s path is determined more by what’s happening in the sky above than the topography below, said Associate Professor Grace Yan, director of the Wind Hazard Mitigation Laboratory at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
The most destructive and long-lasting tornadoes are spawned by supercell storms, also called mesocyclones, she said.
The hallmark of a supercell thunderstorm is a well-defined rotating updraft.
“Where the tornado goes depends on where the supercell goes,” Yan said.
Neither a plateau nor a body of water, such as a river, is likely to impact the likelihood of a tornado hitting a certain area, she said.
She was asked what, if anything, is predictable about tornadoes.
“You may not like my answer, but in general tornadoes are very complicated,” she said.
She said there is still a “tornado season” of April, May and June.
“It is still too early to claim that global warming or climate change has changed that,” she said. “However, tornadoes can happen any time of the season if the conditions are right.”
The Springfield area has been hit by several tornadoes over the years. The following summaries come from coverage in the Springfield News-Leader spanning 39 years of history. They involve tornadoes in Springfield or in Greene County. This list is part of a Daily Citizen series on tornado safety.
Why do so many tornadoes occur in central states?
In fact, one of the worst tornadoes to hit Springfield occurred on Nov. 29, 1991, the day after Thanksgiving.
The EF4 tornado killed two people and leveled 53 houses, many in the Natural Bridge, Woodbridge and Woodbridge Estates subdivisions in southeast Springfield.
Weather experts and researchers rank tornadoes on the Enhanced Fujita Scale — or EF scale. An EF4 tornado has winds of 166-200 mph.
Missouri falls within the looser definition of “Tornado Alley,” the part of the central United States where tornadoes occur most often.
Just like there are various boundaries offered for the “Ozarks Plateau,” the definition of Tornado Alley varies.
Many consider the Great Plains as Tornado Alley. Missouri is not technically in the Great Plains, but some place it in Tornado Alley.
One thing for sure is the reason why most tornadoes occur in the central states.
“The middle of the country just happens to be a battleground of sorts for differing air masses,” Warriner said via email. “Gulf moisture fuels instability leading to thunderstorm development with dry air moving out of the Southwest and cool/dry air moving south out of Canada helping focus thunderstorm development along fronts.
“The contrast between cool/dry air and Gulf moisture and warmth generates a clash that also contributes to storm-system development that produces the kind of wind energy necessary to organize storms into tornadic ones.”
A story in the Springfield News-Leader provides further evidence that the Ozarks Plateau does not protect us from tornadoes.
The Harry Cooper Supply Co., across the Chestnut Expressway from Ozarks Technical Community College, was hit on Jan. 8, 2008 by an EF1 tornado, with winds of 86-110 mph.
In that tornado, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield commented on the plateau-protection myth.
The tornado was part of a larger weather front in which severe storms swept through southwest Missouri, claiming two lives and demolishing homes from McDonald County northeast past Rolla.
Meteorologist Bill Davis told the newspaper back then that the storms followed the Interstate 44 corridor and demolished the myth that claims the Ozarks Plateau, which rises from west to east, splits storm systems and deflects them.
It quotes Davis as saying, “They came right across the plateau.”
So when you hear a tornado siren or catch a tornado-watch alert on your phone, don’t hesitate — descend to the basement or to the place in your home with the most interior walls.
The Ozarks Plateau will not protect you.