U.P. twisters

MARQUETTE – One-hundred and twenty-five years after a funnel cloud struck downtown Marquette, a commonly-held myth persists that hilly topography of the region protects the Upper Peninsula from the occurrence of potentially deadly tornadoes.

However, the National Weather Service has verified 75 tornadoes in the region since 1950, averaging about one a year, belying the myth twisters don’t occur here.

“Every single county in the Upper Peninsula has had a tornado touch down in over the past 50 to 60 years,” said Matt Zika, a warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS office in Negaunee Township.

On June 8, 2012, a tornado packing 95 mph winds cut a path up to 200 yards wide through the forested plains of northwestern Marquette County and across Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine site.

The twister – which traced a trail nearly 8 miles long across the ground – rated an EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the six-level scale that measures tornado intensity and estimates wind speeds based on damage incurred.

“It was the longest track tornado in Marquette County history,” Zika said.

Meteorologists said it was fortunate the twister only felled trees across remote roadways and resulted in the loss of one structure.

Because of the sources of cold inherent to lakes Superior and Michigan, the U.P. does not typically develop all of the ingredients common to the destructive twisters of Tornado Alley, forecasters said.

Less than 10 percent of the region’s tornadoes are characterized as strong. Eighty percent register as EF-1 or less, but forecasters said even small tornadoes can be dangerous.

“We would encourage people to take protective action,” Zika said. “All it takes is one tornado in the wrong place and it could be a significant incident for us.”

In 1985, an EF-1 tornado on June 8 felled a tree on a tent at the Shakey Lakes County Park, killing a camper and producing the only recorded U.P. tornado death.

There has never been an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado – like those that recently ravaged Oklahoma – in the U.P. The winds of an EF-4 are over 165 mph and EF-5 twisters twirl at over 200 mph.

Since 1950, the strongest tornadoes recorded in the U.P. have been six EF-3 tornadoes – twisters with winds clocked between 135 and 160 mph.

The most recent EF-3 occurred on May 28, 1991, when a tornado touched down in Menominee and traveled about 12 miles from Faithorn to near Hermansville.

An article in The Mining Journal described two tornadoes spotted in the area then as part of unusual weather over several days brought on by a humid, unstable and slow-moving air mass blamed for playing havoc with “everything from electric power to fish mortality.”

On July 11, 1987, an EF-3 tornado swirled over a path of 72 miles from the Vulcan area in Dickinson County to Cooks in Schoolcraft County.

Additional tornadoes were reported in the U.P. that weekend including sightings near Calumet and in Chippewa County near DeTour, which caused extensive property damage, according to newspaper reports.

On July 4, 1986, an EF-3 twister along the Michigan-Wisconsin border touched down a few miles south of Niagara and stayed on the ground for 24 miles before lifting 5 miles east of Nadeau. The tornado injured a dozen people.

Zika said the most recent EF-2 tornado occurred in Gladstone in 1992. Delta County has recorded the highest number of twisters in the U.P. with 10 since 1950. Houghton County has the fewest with only a single tornado. Marquette County ranks third-highest with Menominee County, each having eight tornadoes over the past six decades.

The highest number of U.P. tornadoes in a single year was logged in 1987 when seven twisters were confirmed. Zika said numerous waterspouts that move onshore have been reported in the U.P. and are considered tornadoes.

Beyond last summer’s tornado in northwestern Marquette County, the most recent twister in the U.P. was a strong EF-0 with 85 mph winds recorded in Ontonagon on August 19, 2011.

That tornado marked a damage path 125 yards wide and was on the ground for three-quarters of a mile, snapping power poles and trees, flipping a boat and causing minor roof and garage damage.

In 2010, a rare April EF-0 twister was recorded in Iron County, which uprooted trees and damaged roofs and outbuildings. No injuries were reported.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is jpepin@miningjournal.net.