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Tornadoes in Malaysia: It’s More About Hot Air Than Angry Gods

On October 14 2014, a tornado hit the rural town of Pendang in Kedah, Malaysia. Many were astonished, as Malaysia is not a country that is accustomed to extreme weather phenomenon (except drought, thunderstorms and floods) and many of nature’s other wraths. We are geographically shielded by many other South East Asian countries, and are even located marginally out of the Ring of Fire.

Ring of Fire

Tornadoes, how do they work?

Like many things in the field of science, the exact series of events leading to the formation of tornadoes has yet to be completely understood. To be able to truly understand the mechanics of a tornado involves a lot of meteorological mumbo jumbo, so let’s just make do with the general idea of things.

This video explains how tornadoes form very well in layman terms, while this video gives a good explanation of the grander picture of the whole formation.

The mixture of rising hot air and fast flowing cold air in the atmosphere forms a rotating column of air, which results in a huge thunderstorm cloud known as a supercell. A supercell is the birthplace of tornadoes – given the appropriate wind conditions, amount of rising hot air, temperature difference and pressure.

Waterspouts and Landspouts

Similar to tornadoes, both are essentially smaller and baby version of tornadoes.

Landspouts are generally weaker in strength, and are not associated with a supercell.

Waterspouts form over water surfaces, and are a common occurrence in tropical areas, including Malaysia. Although they are not as devastating as the average tornadoes, they can move onto land, and even grow into “tornadic waterspouts”, which can dangerous.

Will it happen again?

According to the trends and the National Weather Centre, it is likely.

In Malaysia, we do not have a shortage of the ingredients required for the formation of a supercell, and are actually no strangers to tornado-like occurrences.

For now, these winds and moisture are not be strong and abundant enough to form a full blown tornado, but that might soon change. With extreme weather cases on the rise across the world, and the warmest years consistently being recorded globally, it might be time to abandon the usual assumption of our climate conditions, and maybe even prepare for the worse. Even recently in Malaysia we experienced perhaps the worst flooding in history, and Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon to ever made landfall (reach land) happened just back in late 2013. With wind speeds reaching 315km/h, it hit multiple countries and killed almost 6400 people. For comparison, storm Ivar in the Nordic lands had top wind speeds of 115km/h and only disrupted power supplies, and people could barely walk in the winds below the maximum speed, and the only reason they managed to do that is probably because they have Viking strength.

What to do during a tornado?

If in the future when mother earth decides to go “Day after Tomorrow” on us, perhaps this will become more useful. The main reason for casualties and injuries during tornadoes is actually due to falling or flying debris hurling towards you at breakneck speed, and not by being pulled into a whirlwind of death. Generally, you would want to cover yourself with some protective layers, and make yourself as small a target as possible (crouch, or do your best impression of an egg).

If you are indoors during a tornado:

  • Get to the lowest floor and as close to the center of the building as possible.
  • Stay away from windows (exploding windows can kill), walls and ceilings.
  • Cover and protect yourself with thick paddings such as blankets and mattress.

If you are outdoors:

  • Get indoors (if able).
  • If not shelter is to be found, lie face down flat on the ground and cover the back of your head with your arms.
  • Stay away from tall structures (trees, power line poles, etc.), they might fall on you.

In a vehicle:

Apparently the worst place to be during a tornado is on the road in a vehicle, as they are easily tossed and flipped by the winds. So don’t choose to stay in your vehicle over going indoors, no matter how precious it is.

  • Get indoors (if able).
  • If the tornado is far away, you may attempt to drive away from it, in a right angle direction from the tornado
  • If the tornado is too close, sit in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your hands and other paddings (coat, cushion) if possible.

Here’s to hoping that none of us will need to use this safety guide.

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