S27 Mapping Tornado Risk: The Scientization of Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley

Sunday, 6 January 2013
Exhibit Hall 3 (Austin Convention Center)
Jennifer Henderson, Virginia Tech, Pearisburg, VA

Handout (554.0 kB)

This poster presentation provides a discourse analysis of a National Weather Digest (NWD) publication and highlights how operational meteorologists have scientized tornado risk through their creation and comparison of two geographies: Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley. By focusing on one of the first NWD papers to explore the etymology of and criteria for these two “alley" concepts, I hope to illustrate how this community tacitly distills these political geographies into scientific entities through strategies of expertise, quantification, and classification.

The implications of this transformation are significant. Tornado Alley is naturalized as a standard to which Dixie Alley (and all other potential alleys) is compared. Scientists hold Dixie Alley to this standard, even though the topography of the land, demographics of the population, and storm structure and behavior in the southern U.S. varies significantly from the Plains. And they do so despite acknowledging that these concepts are not scientific and therefore do not conform easily to valid comparisons. Still, while the NWS paper reveals that Dixie Alley contains tornadoes that are often more deadly and intense, Tornado Alley continues to maintain its status as the most tornado-prone environment.

Reasons for this outcome are complicated: first, it reaffirms the historical precedents set by early researchers in Tornado Alley; second, it validates fundamental meteorological sciences that are founded largely on technologies developed in the Plains and the storm structures that appear there; finally it exemplifies the co-production of tornado forecasting techniques with the historical creation of the weather enterprise itself.

I conclude that these “alleys” of risk obscure the need to rethink how tornado risk is conceptualized and how such conversations may, inadvertently, contribute to the vulnerability of populations in Dixie Alley to severe weather.

Supplementary URL: jenhenderson.com

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