Chicago is not tornado-proof. Here’s why.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - — Tony Briscoe

De­spite be­ing known as the Windy City, Chicago has de­vel­oped a false rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing im­per­vi­ous to tor­na­does.

In its his­tory, Chicago has seen very few tor­na­does compared with the rest of Illi­nois, which, as a whole, sees dozens of tor­na­does an­nu­ally and has en­dured the na­tion’s dead­li­est tornado, the 1925 Tri-State tornado that left 695 dead and 2,000 injured on a path from north­east­ern Mis­souri through south­ern Illi­nois and In­di­ana.

Experts say many Chicago residents have been lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity be­cause there hasn’t been a se­vere tornado near the city in decades. Many sim­ply be­lieve the city is tornado-proof, es­pous­ing junk sci­ence that Chicago is pro­tected by the cooler tem­per­a­tures and breezes from Lake Michi­gan, or that down­town’s sky­line is a stum­bling block for cy­clones.

Sci­en­tists like North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­sity as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Vic­tor Gensini have been fight­ing those mis­con­cep­tions for years.

“Peo­ple in Chicago are com­pla­cent be­cause there’s an ur­ban leg­end that the lake will steer a tornado away or that the build­ings are go­ing to pro­tect you.”

In the spring, as Lake Michi­gan thaws from its win­ter freeze, the ar­eas near the lake stay cooler. And the cooler ground-level tem­per­a­tures make for less-than-ideal con­di­tions, given tor­na­does re­quire a clash of warm and cold air.

While it is com­mon­place for storms to stall south of In­ter­state 80, the lake ef­fect buf­fer is neg­li­gi­ble when se­vere storm fronts ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing sig­nif­i­cant tor­na­does oc­cur.

“On those type of days, where there’s a weak lake breeze, that will have a min­i­mal ef­fect, be­cause the en­vi­ron­ment is so volatile,” said Matt Friedlein, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at the National Weather Ser­vice in Romeoville. “It can pro­duce long-lived storms and tornado po­ten­tial. Some of the tor­na­does (that have oc­curred in Illi­nois) go 25-plus miles.”

Friedlein con­tin­ued, “Once it goes out into the lake, then it’s a dif­fer­ent story, be­cause you’re go­ing di­rectly over cold air.”

Any pro­tec­tion pro­vided by the city’s sky­line is also overblown. Although large struc­tures could add fric­tion along a puny storm’s path, it won’t do much to stop a su­per­cell-pro­duc­ing tornado.

“You’re talk­ing about build­ings — at their high­est — that are 1,500 feet, and storms that are 50,000 feet tall,” Friedlein said.

JOHN J. KIM/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Clouds move over the Roscoe Vil­lage and Lake­view neighborho­ods be­fore a rain­storm June 27.

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