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Tornado Alley

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While there are tornadoes on every continent, most of them happen in the United States. And most of those occur on the Great Plains. North Dakota is located at the northern edge of what is known as Tornado Alley. April, May, and June are considered tornado season.

The state has known its share of tornadoes, experiencing an average of 23 per year. Some years have seen as many as 60. The counties at highest risk are Grand Forks, Steele, and Traill. On this date in 2017, several supercell thunderstorms spawned at least 11 tornadoes across the state. The largest and strongest storm tracked for over 110 miles, producing four of the tornadoes.

The most famous North Dakota tornado was a 1957 storm that hit Fargo. Ten people were killed and over one hundred injured. Over three hundred homes were destroyed. Churches, schools, and businesses were damaged. The total damage was over $20 million – the equivalent of about $200 million today. Debris from the storm was found 60 miles away.

The 1957 tornado played a major role in the career of the legendary tornado expert Ted Fujita, a man known as “Mr. Tornado.” In 1953, he joined the University of Chicago as a meteorologist and spent the next 50 years studying tornadoes. He began to develop his international reputation when he studied the Fargo storm. Fujita thought it would be useful to have a system to categorize the strength of tornadoes. He studied the Fargo tornado and documented what happened by examining the damage on the ground as well as photographs. He developed a system that rated tornadoes on a scale of F-1 to F-5, with F-5 being the strongest. He determined that the Fargo tornado was an F5.

After a tornado touches down, meteorologists arrive to examine the scene. Once they assess the damage, they rate the tornado using the system that is still known as the Enhanced Fujita Scale, from F-1 to F-5. It is a common term in weather reports. The “F” stands for Fujita, named for the man who created it. But one could say the “F” also stands for Fargo, since that’s where it was born.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher

YouTube. “Extremely Close Multi-vortex Tornado near Buxton, North Dakota. July 11, 2017” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TLneH7AOOk Accessed 6/10/2022.
YouTube. “Fargo Tornado of 1957.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZeMYgsS4dw Accessed 6/10/2022.
HomeFacts. “Tornado Information for North Dakota.” https://www.homefacts.com/tornadoes/North-Dakota.html Accessed 6/10/2022.
Inflation Calendar. “$20 in 1957.” https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1957?amount=20 Accessed 6/10/2022.
University of Chicago. “The Fujita Scale Explained.” https://news.uchicago.edu/explainer/fujita-scale-explained Accessed 6/10/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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