In American they call it “tornado alley”. And, according to the people of the Upper Murray last week, that’s exactly where they felt they were after wind storms of up to 250kmh left a trail of devastation through their towns.
But weather experts have warned that tornadoes are much more common in Australia than many would think.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology suggests the land Down Under has recorded more than 1200 of the high intensity wind storms over the past 200 years.
The first recorded tornado in Australia hit Sydney in 1795 and destroyed crops and trees according to a first-hand account in the Bureau’s database. Others since have been much more destructive.
The bureau’s records show a distinct increase in tornado activity across Australia but Victorian meteorologist Tony Bannister believes this is a reflection of improved reporting resources.
Tornadoes, he said, often occurred in regional areas but due to a lack of population went unreported by the Bureau.
“It is true that these storms can be quite rare but they also have to move through somewhere that has infrastructure for us to hear about them,” Mr Bannister said.
“Quite often they are occurring right out in the back blocks, far away from town, so the farmers are the only ones who ever see or hear about them.”
With the creation of the Bureau’s severe weather section in the mid-1980s and the advent of its volunteer Storm Spotter network, reporting has flourished.
Tornadoes, Mr Bannister explained, are ranked on a severity scale from the relatively-harmless F0 to the deadly F5.
“Most of the tornadoes we get in Australia are F0. They can still do damage but … an F5 … destroys everything and can even lift road surfaces up,” he said.
The tornado that cut through Mulwala, Yarrawonga, Barooga, Bundalong, Rutherglen and Koonoomoo last week has been classified as an F2, with wind gusts of 180-250kmh.
It destroyed more than 20 homes and 100 caravans, with more badly damaged.
Mr Bannister said the tornado had developed following severe thunderstorms in the area.
“It looks like at least one tornado formed in southern NSW and tracked along the Murray (river) for a few kilometres at least,” he said.
Dr Hamish Ramsay, from Monash University’s School of Mathematical Sciences, said it was too early to tell whether climate change was making the tornadoes more common.
“There is no scientific consensus that tornadoes will become more frequent with climate change, partly because we don’t have an accurate historical record of them,” he said.
“Even in the US the most accurate records only date back to the 1950s or so, and unfortunately we can’t say much with only 50 years of data to study – and that’s in the US where they have a lot of tornadoes.
“You can imagine that for Australia, we have an even bigger problem (with less tornadoes and less data to study).”