Sometimes a tornado can be a bear

Sometimes a tornado can be a bear

UCAR Center for Science Education Staffer Becca Hatheway encountered a tornado yesterday on her way to Denver International Airport. Naturally, this made her think about bears. Check out her story below to find out why.

This is what the sky looked like above Denver as the tornado sirens wailed on May 18, 2013. The thunderstorm headed east (right) and caused the airport tornado. Check out the  tornado photos Tweeted during the event.
Credit: Adam Holloway

By Becca Hatheway, UCAR Center for Science Education

I used to lead backpacking trips with teenagers throughout the Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. At the beginning of each six-week adventure we would go over the necessary skills and safety information with the group. In Alaska we made sure everyone in our group understood what to do if they encountered a bear. We discussed scenarios and acted out appropriate responses, which always got the kids laughing. We also hoped the safety information sunk in so they would know what to do in case of an emergency.

One afternoon, after a long, rainy day on the trail, we set up camp and got into our tents to warm up and dry off. A few of the kids took longer to get settled in their tents, and I lay there listening to their banter. Suddenly their conversation took a very different tone, and I heard them running over to me, shrieking about bears. “There’s a bear, oh my god, there’s a bear!!!” I raced out of my tent and looked around. I didn’t see anything.  “Where’s the bear?” I asked. They handed a pair of binoculars to me and pointed to a distant hillside. Way in the distance, on the other side of a river, was a bear. He or she was ignoring us, slowly ambling across the hillside as he ate berries.

I asked the group, “Is that the bear you’re talking about?”

“Yes!” they cried out. “What should we do? He might come our way!”

Thinking about the training we had just gone through, I asked them what they would have done if the bear had crossed the river and came towards our campsite. I wanted to hear them say that they would face the bear but not make eye contact, stand tall, talk in a calm voice, and if necessary drop to the ground and play dead. Instead, one girl piped up, “Run! We would run!”

I thought about this experience yesterday when I saw a tornado in the vicinity of the Denver International Airport. I was driving to the airport to catch an afternoon flight. The sky looked dark and stormy, and as I got close to the airport my phone sounded an alarm saying there was a tornado in the area. Off to the left I could see a funnel cloud. I knew that a car isn’t the safest place to wait out a tornado, including under an overpass (lots of cars were doing this on the road to the airport). We are told that if we can’t get to a tornado shelter we should leave our cars and lie down in a low, flat location.

But in the moment I just felt panic! I was alone, driving, and couldn’t find any information on the radio. I know tornadoes can change direction quickly, so I wasn’t sure that stopping where I was would keep me safe. So I drove a little further, then pulled off the road and waited it out. I was able to pull up live video from a local television station, and I found the current forecast from the National Weather Service. I heard that the airport had evacuated everyone into tornado shelters (mostly bathrooms and tunnels) and I decided I was happy not to be there yet. After a short time the storm moved over the plains away from the airport, the sky brightened, and I got back on the road.

But in the end, even though I think severe weather is really cool, I never took a photo. I drove, stopped, and drove some more, always stealing glances at the sky, before settling on what I decided was a safe place to wait out the storm.

This reminded me of that bear in Alaska. Even when armed with information about what to do in an emergency, it isn’t easy to act according to plan. Thankfully this tornado didn’t do any damage and no one was hurt. And next time, if there is a next time, I plan to take out my camera as soon as I know that I’m safe!