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Wed, 7 Sep 2022

Tornado trouble

Destruction caused by a tornado in Townsville, Queensland, 20 March 2012. Image: Yetta Gurtner.

A new James Cook University study has found some Australians don’t believe tornadoes happen here – and it’s sparked calls for more education about these severe weather events.

Yetta Gurtner is a lecturer and research supervisor at JCU’s Centre for Disaster Studies. She said Australia experiences an estimated 60 tornadoes a year.

“An initial review suggested there was limited community awareness and understanding of tornadoes in Australia. So PhD candidate Vicki MacLean put together a research project to gauge levels of existing knowledge and capacity from a disaster management perspective,” said Dr Gurtner.

The online survey attracted 224 people to talk about their views on tornado activity.

Dr Gurtner said there appeared to be some confusion about the difference between a cyclone, a hurricane and a tornado, and almost 5 per cent of survey respondents believed tornadoes did not occur in Australia at all.

“There are eyewitness accounts of tornadic activity dating back to 1795, but the documented evidence of tornadoes in Australia has been sporadic and inconsistent. Part of the reason for this is because tornadoes predominantly occur in sparsely populated locations,” said Dr Gurtner.

She said 17 per cent of respondents did not know where to source relevant information on weather hazards, of any kind, or how to prepare for an event.

“While most people were familiar with tornadoes, there is significant variability in the terminology used in Australia. Frequently used alternative terms such as willy-willy, dust devil and mini tornado can distort community perceptions regarding the size and destructive capacity of an event,” said Dr Gurtner.

She said the next phases of the research project will involve assessing the knowledge and practice of weather forecasters and emergency management personnel and determining how they might better help keep the community safe.


Dr Yetta Gurtner
E: yetta.gurtner@jcu.edu.au