A Tornado 'Crockumentary' Analyzed in Detail for Scientific Content


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 01 March 2010 Updated: 23 May 2010: removed some comments that are no longer valid

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell_at_earthlink.net - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @. However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

This is a follow-up to my discussion about what I call crock-umentaries on television - in brief, these are TV programs purporting to explain science to the viewers, but which typically are laced with factual errors, misrepresentations, and misleading statements. The producers of these are not focused on getting the science right. Rather, they're about following a formula leading to commercial success. By that, I mean specifically that the program attracts enough viewers that advertisers are willing to pay for the numerous commercials that break up the show.

I decided to look at one example in detail, and point out every instance of what concerns me about the science as stated on the program - either in the narration, or the interviews, or the images rolling behind the talk. I've chosen the program Raging Planet: Tornado which has been re-airing recently on the Discovery Channel - such programs repeat annually as tornado season approaches once again. The producers of the Raging Planet series are Pioneer Productions, with whom I've dealt on several occasions in the past. Here is what the Discovery Channel says about the Raging Planet series:

Raging Planet is a spectacular weather and geology series built around a backbone of fascinating science. Covering dramatic weather in high definition, RAGING PLANET brings you up-close and personal to lightning, volcanoes, floods, avalanches, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and sea storms.

Pioneer offers the following information about the series:

"Superb documentary series" - Radio Times. 'Critics choice' - Times. 'Pick of the Day' - Daily Telegraph. "Remarkable camera footage" - Daily Mail. "Extraordinary film" - TV choice. "Excellent" - Time Out

Awards: Earthquake Disaster Relief Award at the Seismos Awards sponsored by SECED. Gold Medal at the New York Festivals.

Thus, the Discovery Channel implies that the series is "built" on science and Pioneer is bursting with pride regarding their work, which apparently garnered rave reviews. I'm going to list in detail everything in the program that bothered me while watching it, following sequentially through the program. Should you watch the show, you can follow along and see/hear exactly what they show/say about the science, compared to my short summaries. Herein, I'm going to paraphrase what they said or describe briefly what they showed - you can judge for yourself about my interpretations. On to the analysis.


In what follows, regular text is used for the offending content and my discussion is in a different font and color.

1. As they describe the thunderstorms of the U.S. plains, the narrator says they can climb "up to 9 miles" high.

Nine miles is not some magical number. Is there a "glass ceiling" at 9 miles? Where did 9 miles come from? Some plains storms exceed 9 miles in height. Others are less.

2. The narrator describes tornadoes as "destroying everything" within their path.

This is ambiguous and likely an exaggeration. Given this and other uses of the word "destroy", I'm at a loss to know just what they mean by it. It's likely that tornadoes can cause damage of some sort to most things they encounter, but to say that everything in the path is destroyed is simply hyperbole ("hype").

3. The narrator says that in the U.S., more than 1000 tornadoes occur every year.

This might be true on the average, but the number of reported tornadoes doesn't exceed 1000 every year. Unreported tornadoes might actually make this a true statement, but we'd have no way of knowing, so how can the producers justify this statement? They can't.

4. In one early segment, there's an extended video clip from a dust devil that clearly is not a tornado!

5. The narrator says that investigators, like Tim Marshall (featured on the program) can "accurately gauge the power of a tornado".

This is something of an exaggeration. Good, experienced, and knowledgeable investigators like Tim can make some reasonably good estimates of windspeeds by looking at damage but the damage-windspeed relationship is complex and highly nonlinear. No one can be said to be able to use it to make accurate windspeed assessments - in part because we have so few actual measurements of the windspeed in tornadoes, to say nothing of at the time and location where a particular example of damage occurred.

6. The videos showing under the narration often have little to do with the actual events being described by the narration. For the EF-scale examples, I have my doubts that the producers can show that all the tornadoes shown have actual ratings consistent with what is being discussed.

7. The narrator talks of objects being propelled at 160 mph as they show footage of a sign penetrating far into a car.

I wonder to what extent that figure of 160 mph is consistent with what is being shown. How and where did they obtain the footage shown? The wind engineers at Texas Tech typically propel their missiles at 100 mph with their air cannon.

8. The narrator claims that EF3 is only halfway up the Enhanced Fujita scale.

The Storm Prediction Center provides a description of the EF-Scale. [You might also want to see here, as well.] There are 6 categories: EF-0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. So how is EF3 halfway up the scale? I seems to me it's 2/3 of the way up.

9. Video footage of the 1995 Pampa tornado by Sheriff Randy Stubblefield is shown in connection with a discussion of the EF5 tornado level. (see #6, above)

The official rating of the Pampa event (see here for my chase discussion) is EF4.

10. The narrator describes tornado damage as "beyond comprehension".

Although I certainly am not qualified to speak about what any individual can comprehend, I believe this statement simply to be more media hyperbole. The so-called "freak" damage examples might be a challenge to our understanding, but this sort of exaggeration seems only designed to make things more mysterious than they actually are.

11.The explanation for the frequency of tornadoes in "Tornado Alley" is that old favorite: Colliding warm and cold air masses.

I've discussed the bankruptcy of this stupid "explanation" here (Item B.21). This program provides a beautiful but scientifically nonsensical animated graphic under the narration. Nice job on the graphics but the explanation is hogwash. The prevalence of this "explanation" is difficult to justify - this often-repeated baloney is comparable to the way that a tornado is purported to sound "like a freight train".

12. The narrator describes how warm, humid air starting at low levels rises upward into "heavier, colder" air above.

The air above the surface is not heavier than the rising air. This would require a deep layer of lapse rates exceeding the autoconvective. I fail to understand why buoyancy can't be given an accurate but understandable description.

13. The narrator describes the rising air ascending 36,000 ft into the stratosphere.

This description is somewhat ambiguous. It could be interpreted to mean 36,000 feet above the tropopause, which would be outright misinformation, of course. Or it could mean that once you reach 36,000 feet, you're in the stratosphere, which is nearly as nonsensical as the first interpretation. Where did they get the number 36,000? What's magical about that number? Are all storm tops exactly 36,000 feet? [Not hardly!]

13. The narrator says that if the rising motion is fast enough, the storm will begin to rotate.

Unbelievable misinformation!! The speed of the updraft is not significantly responsible for the development of storm rotation! However, the rotation of the storm might have a big impact on the speed of the updraft.

14. The narrator says that in 1/3 of supercells, the clouds begin to descend.

What does this nonsense mean? I think the implication is that 1/3 of all supercells are tornadic. But clouds descend in supercells almost all the time, so where does this statement come from? Is this miserable script the responsibility of someone trying to interpret the science for them? Probably. And it's probably someone without a clue about the science.

15. The narrator says that once the tornado touches down (see Item #1b here), it will destroy anything in its path.

See my comment about item #2, above.

16. The narrator says that a tornado only becomes destructive when its "swirling funnel cloud" drops and reaches the ground.

More misinformation, this time potentially dangerous. It seems oblivious to the science that we've been trying to sell for decades that the tornado is the wind, not the cloud. No cloud need be on the ground for the tornadic winds to be occurring at the surface, capable of destruction. See here for more.

17. The narrator says "never try to outrun a tornado".

The narration repeats an old cliché about tornado safety that is, in fact, misleading at best. It seems that the victim Randy Applegate tried to play the "I can reach the crossing before the train does!" game with a tornado on I-70 during the 23 May 2008 outbreak in northwest Kansas. Had he just stopped and let the tornado cross the road in front of him, he wouldn't have had a problem. It's definitely possible to outrun a tornado, especially on an Interstate highway (unless it's clogged with stormchasers!). But trying to reach (and pass) a point in the tornado path just before the tornado gets there is damned foolish, at best. See here for more discussion.

18. The narrator says "Tornado chasers risk everything to document a tornado."

I'm not certain what the intention of this somewhat ambiguous statement might have been. Why chasers do what they do varies a lot from one chaser to another. There are all sorts of motives out there, and only a small percentage of chasers are doing so for science, to "document" the tornado. This bit of hyperbole is apparently designed to match the media-propagated cliché that chasers are all basically thrill-seekers with a death wish.

19. The narration confuses multiple tornadoes from the same storm with multiple vortices. The narrator says that chasers refer to multiple vortices as "a bundle".

More misinformation! Multiple vortices within a single tornado is rather distinct from multiple tornadoes from the same storm. I've never heard a chaser use this particular piece of jargon, so I wonder who might have given this erroneous tidbit to the producers and the script author(s). It reminds me of the fake jargon used in Twister!

20. According to the narration, stormchasers Scott McPartland and Dave Lewison were "surrounded by EF3 tornadoes" at some point during their chase near Attica, KS on 12 May 2004.

That storm certainly produced more than one tornado, and had more than one at the same time, but I don't believe these chasers ever were truly surrounded by EF3 tornadoes. This is just more hyperbole and misinformation.

21. The narrator says that the slower a tornado moves across the countryside, the darker it becomes, apparently owing to the ingestion of dust.

I just can't imagine by what means or from whom the producers picked up this tidbit of misinformation for the script. The debris load of a tornado is not all that dependent on how fast it's moving - it depends mostly on the nature of what's at the surface.

22. The narrator says that mobile radars, known as Doppler, help Gary England (OKC TV Channel 9) track storms for his warnings.

First of all, the notion of mobile radar and Doppler radar aren't synonymous - just because a radar is mobile doesn't mean it has Doppler capability. More misinformation. Second, Gary England doesn't generally have real-time access to mobile Doppler radars, so this is some sort of fabrication or misinterpretation of the real situation.

23. During his interview, Gary England says, "... I knew people had to be dying [during the 3 May 1999 tornado moving through the OKC metro] because I could see the power line flashes ..."

How can he know people are dying just by seeing power flashes? Power flashes mean a tornado is moving through power lines, but it says nothing about whether or not people are being killed.

24. The narration says that radar measured the winds in tornado A9 on 3 May 1999 at more than 318 mph, which is claimed to be the highest wind velocity ever measured.

See here for some discussion of this. In the time since the announcements first were made, even Josh Wurman (who has left the University of Oklahoma) no longer makes such a claim.

25. The narrator describes the tornado of 8 May 2003 in the OKC metro as having passed over the same ground as that of 3 May 1999, and that the difference in the fatality counts was due to people listening to the warnings after their experiences on 3 May 1999.

Although the damage tracks of tornado A9 on 3 May 1999 and the F4 on 8 May 2003 do have some limited overlap, they are very different events. By any standard, the size and intensity of the 3 May 1999 tornado was much greater than that of the tornado on 8 May 2003. As can be seen at the Norman NWS office site, the overlap of the tornado tracks is not very large. I'm pretty confident that the difference in the fatality counts is more likely attributable to the size and intensity differences than to the way that OKC metro residents responded to the warnings. I know of no surveys that would validate this apparently unsubstantiated assertion/misinformation.

26. The program shows the infamous "overpass" video along the Kansas turnpike from the 26 April 1991 tornado outbreak.

Despite our continuing efforts to discourage anyone from seeking shelter under overpasses, the repeated showings of this video may be more powerful than any words the narrator offers about how viewers shouldn't do this. It's frustrating to see this sleazy video repeated seemingly endlessly in these crockumentaries! The implicit message in the video is that it's O.K. to do so, no matter what the narrator might say before or after it runs. And these programs are re-run every spring without fail, thereby renewing the visual misinterpretation of the video.

27. The narrator says that "nearly all fatalities are from flying debris".

It likely is true that the majority of fatalities can be attributed to trauma from flying debris impacts (and impalements), but I think "nearly all" is hyperbole.

28. The narration implies that the buildings in the Picher, OK tornado of 10 May 2008 were destroyed because they were old and, therefore, weaker than recently-constructed homes.

The idea that old construction is consistently weaker in the face of damaging winds is just not correct, and misleading the public in this way can be dangerous. "Oh, we don't have to worry about that approaching tornado! Our home was recently built, unlike those poor folks in Picher, OK!"

29. The narrator says that Picher was "razed to the ground" even as the video clips pan around and show homes with walls still standing and even some homes with relatively minor damage.

This notion of what constitutes a "destroyed" structure is troublesome to us meteorologists. The term "destroyed" means different things to different folks, and we generally reserve the term for homes that are more or less leveled, with only minor remnants at most still standing. Of course, even F2 damage can render a home a total loss, but we don't see this as a "destroyed" home. Perhaps this is just semantics, but it would seem to me that a program built on science (and engineering) would want to avoid such ambiguous words. The town was not "razed to the ground" but it might well have been rendered mostly uninhabitable.

30. The narrator asserts that the 20 mph speed of the Greensburg, KS tornado of 4 May 2007 meant that it took 20 minutes to "move on".

The wording, again, is ambiguous. For a tornado a mile wide, a 20 mph speed means it takes 3 min to pass any one point. Perhaps the implication was that the town of Greensburg is 20/3 = 6-2/3 mile across, so it took 20 min (1/3 of an hour) to traverse the town. Again, a science-based program should be taking pains to avoid hyperbole and offer unambiguous information.

Overall Thoughts

My general impression of this program is that, like other tornado crockumentaries, it's just not very satisfying to a scientist. Getting the story right and conveying accurate, unambiguous information that viewers can use to make decisions in their lives ought to be a high priority for a program about science. This program was not about science. It was about how to babble a combination of good and bad information as an excuse to show exciting tornado videos and glitzy (but meaningless) animated graphics. The producers and TV folks seem to have an unwavering formula for success with marketing this garbage, but they play it fast and loose with the science.

Tim Marshall did a great job in his interviews and was careful not to say anything stupid, just for the effect. He isn't to blame for the crap that actually made it on the air.

This particular program was not the worst I've ever seen, but it's pretty far from the best, as well. I think it's typical of the 'disaster porn' genre - containing so much that is wrong or misleading or ambiguous that I can't imagine anyone coming away with a coherent understanding of the science that, at least nominally, was being presented. If the goal of this sort of program were to inform, I'd have higher expectations. As it is, I now realize the goal of this type of pseudo-science is to put eyeballs in front of adverts. And to make money for the advertisers, the producers, and the TV networks. Apparently, this stuff is notably successful in its own terms, but it's a disaster for the science and the knowledge level of the public.

Perhaps you might wish to offer a comment about such programming to the Discovery Channel. If so, you can do so here.