Oklahoma's devastating tornado, which killed at least 24 people and injured more than 200 others, is drawing comparisons to past U.S. twisters today, including the massive tornado that hit the same region in 1999. And the United States has plenty of examples to draw from. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States, in averaging more than 1,000 tornadoes each year, is by far the global leader when it comes to number of twisters recorded. Canada finishes a distant second with roughly 100 per year.
Here's NOAA's map of the regions of the world that are most likely to experience tornadoes. In addition to the United States and Canada, the organization highlights many European countries and parts of other nations including Argentina, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Japan (click on the image below to expand):
So why is the United States so disproportionately prone to tornadoes? According to a Discovery Channel explainer on the subject, the distinction is a result of climatology, geography, and topography (the NOAA image at the top of this post shows this week's storm system over Moore, Oklahoma):
[T]he United States has an abundance of flat, low-lying geographic regions, and it also has a climate that is conducive to intense thunderstorms, and tornadoes tend to form during thunderstorms.
Turning for a moment from topography to geography, the United States has a few places that might be called tornado hotspots. Most prominent among them, of course, is "Tornado Alley," a slice of America's mid-section running horizontally from Texas up to North Dakota -- taking in portions of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska....
Tornado alley's tornadoes usually happen later in the spring time and sometimes into the fall. The region is considered a prime breeding ground for supercell thunderstorms, which tend to produce the strongest tornadoes. Supercell thunderstorms contain something called a mesocyclone, which has a rotating updraft -- they're very dangerous but also, when identified as supercells, can provide a good heads-up that the extreme weather they can produce, like tornadoes, is possible....
Florida, too, has lots of tornadoes. That's because the state has many thunderstorms on a daily basis, and it's also a pit stop for many tropical storms or hurricanes (the tropical storms and hurricanes don't tend to produce the kind of killer tornadoes that come about during non-tropical storms).
While the United States leads the world when it comes to sheer volume of tornadoes, the ranking changes when you apply other filters. The United Kingdom, for example, has more tornadoes relative to its land area than any other country (a fact one expert attributed to the country's position on the Atlantic seaboard, at the nexus of polar air from the North Pole and tropical air from the Equator). And factors such as high population density, ineffective warning systems, and shoddy infrastructure mean tornadoes can be particularly deadly in countries like Bangladesh, which experienced a tornado that killed 1,300 people in 1989.
Writing for PBS, Peter Tyson points out that America's tornado tally may be so high relative to the rest of the world in part because other countries aren't as diligent about recording twisters. And he adds that all nations that experience tornadoes have something in common:
They lie 20° to 50° on either side of the equator, in the mid-latitudes. "You could probably get a tornado anywhere on the planet, but there are places where they are far less frequent," says John Snow, a tornado expert at the University of Oklahoma. "For good meteorological reasons, these tend to be in the tropics and the very high latitudes."
The only continent where twisters have yet to strike? Antarctica.
NASA/NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images
Reuters brings us today's reminder that the world is a confusing, intricately interconnected place:
Disgruntled Bulgarian truck drivers blocked traffic at two major border checkpoints with neighboring Turkey on Friday to protest against what they said were Turkish restrictions to their operations.
Among those caught up in the blockade, now in its second day, was British band Depeche Mode, which was forced to cancel its concert in Istanbul on Friday because trucks carrying equipment from Bulgaria could not get through.
Depeche Mode, for its part, has apologized to Turkish fans on its website:
We regret to inform ticket holders for tonight's show in Istanbul at KüçükÇiftlik Park that, due to circumstances beyond the control of Depeche Mode and Purple Concerts, tonight's show will not be taking place. The Bulgarian trucking blockade at the Bulgaria-Turkey border has prevented Depeche Mode's production trucks from crossing the border into Turkey, forcing this situation.
As if ticket holders couldn't have seen the Bulgarian trucking blockade coming.
VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images
Faithful readers of Iran's state-run news outlets might have noticed a lot of hype this week about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plans to unveil a new Iranian-made surveillance and combat drone -- the country's "most advanced" yet -- called Epic (Hemaseh in Farsi).
Well, it's here. PressTV reports:
The drone was unveiled on Thursday during a ceremony attended by Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi.
"This drone has been built by defense industry experts and is simultaneously capable of surveillance, reconnaissance and missile and rocket attacks," Vahidi said on the sidelines of the ceremony.
"This aircraft with its stealth quality can avoid detection by the enemy," he added.
High altitude and long flight range are two other distinguishing features of the new Iranian UAV.
The news comes amid reports that an Israeli drone made its first fully automated takeoff this week -- and just weeks after Israel shot down a drone of unknown provenance and Iran showcased a new long-range drone on the country's Army Day (see photo above). A report by Iran's Fars News Agency earlier this week claimed that Iran, in fact, is designing and producing 40 different types of drones. As P.W. Singer wrote in a Foreign Policy article on the spread of smaller and smarter drones to other countries:
[W]hen we often talk about a supposed future of drone proliferation, we usually ignore the reality of the present. We already have a market that is global in both its customers, from Australia to Turkey, and in its manufacturers, from American firms like General Atomics and Lockheed to ASN Technology, one of the major makers in China, and ADE of India.
The Obama administration should "be more willing to discuss international legal standards for use of drones," former State Department legal advisor Harold Koh declared in a speech at Oxford on Tuesday, "so that our actions do not inadvertently empower other nations and actors who would use drones inconsistent with the law."
Seems like the world is way ahead of the White House on this one.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Over the weekend, North Korea insisted that it would not use Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the government, as a bargaining chip, despite its track record of only releasing American prisoners after visits by luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Pyongyang "has no plan to invite anyone of the U.S. as regards the issue," a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry declared.
But how about if Dennis Rodman tweets at Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and asks his new pal to do him a solid? On Tuesday, the former NBA star, fresh off his wild trip to North Korea, got into the bargaining game on Twitter:
I'm calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him "Kim", to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.— Dennis Rodman (@dennisrodman) May 7, 2013
At least one person anticipated this. In an op-ed for the Seattle Times on Friday, Thanh Tan urged Rodman to call for Bae's release on Twitter. If that's what it takes to free the American prisoner, we've truly entered a whole new era of diplomacy.
Update: It turns out Rodman's plea was in response to the Seattle Times op-ed. He followed up on Twitter to note he "decided to help" after reading the article. It's unclear if Kim Jong Un is also a Seattle Times reader.
Brad Barket/Getty Images
Back in 2011, I wrote about a story that seemed way, way too good to be true: Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan -- a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family famous for owning rainbow-colored cars, the world's largest truck, and a globe-shaped motor home that's roughly one-millionth the size of Earth -- had carved his name, "Hamad," into an island he owns in the United Arab Emirates, forming waterways so massive that the letters could be viewed from space. But it was true -- and Google Earth satellite imagery proved it.
Now the story's getting even more epic. According to a Wall Street Journal report today, the name has since disappeared with no explanation -- as you can see by comparing this 2011 Google Earth image with a more recent one taken in August 2012 (in the latter, the icon where "Hamad" used to be is a Google annotation linking to a Daily Mail story about the sheikh's exploits).
The Journal has more on the mysterious vanishing act -- including what it learned from a trip to the largely uninhabited island:
A recent visit to Futaisi Island revealed only a flat expanse of sand stretching over the area where the canals had once snaked their way through the desert. A few excavators -apparently used to pile sand back into the canals - were scattered around the site. Only the main inlet of the canals, the base of the "H" where they emptied into the waters surrounding the city, has been spared the filling-in operation....
"We deleted it," said a man named Waleed, who works in Sheikh Hamad's Abu Dhabi office. But he wouldn't say why or when.
An engineer at Abu Dhabi's National Marine Dredging Company, which handled the construction of the canals that spelled out the sheikh's name, said he was hired to do a job, not to ask questions about it. A former business partner of the sheikh pled ignorance: "I don't know what happened," he said. "I have no idea and I don't think I will come into that information."
Efforts to contact Sheikh Hamad via his office or his business associates were unsuccessful. Even his whereabouts is hard to ascertain. Some say he lives in Morocco, others in Europe.
One possible explanation for disappearance of Sheikh Hamad's name is that someone in authority decided that the vast carving in the sand didn't fit the modern image of Abu Dhabi, which is using its vast oil wealth to position itself as a cultural capital by building branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums and hosting campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne.
Apparently, spelling your name in canals doesn't qualify as Louvre-level art these days.
Atlantic Wire/Google Earth
Last week, the quest to understand the motives behind the Tsarnaev brothers' violent actions took a dramatic turn, as speculation centered on a mysterious Muslim convert in the Boston area who, as one uncle put it, "just took [Tamerlan's] brain" in the years preceding the marathon bombing. "A Bald, Red-Bearded Exorcist Named Misha May Have Radicalized Tamerlan Tsarnaev," New York magazine declared in a roundup of what relatives were saying about the friend who allegedly turned Tamerlan toward radical Islam. News outlets scrambled to locate "Misha," to no avail.
More recently, however, the story has been crumbling. On Saturday, the Associated Press, quoting anonymous U.S. officials, reported that federal investigators had "identified an individual believed to be Misha" but "found no ties to the [Boston] attack or terrorism in general."
And on Sunday, FP's Christian Caryl tracked down Misha, who said that he's been cooperating fully with the FBI and that agents are planning to close his case soon. Here's Caryl's report for the New York Review of Books from Rhode Island:
Today I was able to meet "Misha," whose real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov. Having been referred by a family in Boston that was close to the Tsarnaevs, I found Allakverdov at his home in Rhode Island, in a lower middle class neighborhood, where he lives in modest, tidy apartment with his elderly parents. He confirmed he was a convert to Islam and that he had known Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but he flatly denied any part in the bombings. "I wasn't his teacher. If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this," Allakhverdov said.
A thirty-nine-year-old man of Armenian-Ukrainian descent, Allakhverdov is of medium height and has a thin, reddish-blond beard. When I arrived he was wearing a green and white short-sleeve football jersey and pajama pants. Along with his parents, his American girlfriend was there, and we sat together in a tiny living room that abuts the family kitchen.
Allakhverdov said he had known Tamerlan in Boston, where he lived until about three years ago, and has not had any contact with him since. He declined to describe the nature of his acquaintance with Tamerlan or the Tsarnaev family, but said he had never met the family members who are now accusing him of radicalizing Tamerlan....
The account is worth reading in full here.
Sergey Rassulov/Getty Images
As new details emerge about the two brothers suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings, we're learning that the Tsarnaev family briefly lived in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia's Dagestan region near Chechnya, before moving to the United States in 2002. The Associated Press says it's spoken to the suspects' father, who is in Makhachkala ("My son is a true angel," he declares). And here's the AP on the suspect who is still at large:
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's page on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte says he attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, graduating in 2011, the year he won the scholarship, which was celebrated with a reception at City Hall, according to a news release issued at the time. Before moving to the United States, he attended School No. 1 in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia's North Caucasus that has become an epicenter of the Islamic insurgency that spilled over from Chechnya. On the site, he describes himself as speaking Chechen as well as English and Russian. His world view is described as "Islam" and he says his personal goal is "career and money."
Back in 2011, Tom Parfitt wrote a fascinating dispatch for FP from the very city where Dzhokhar reportedly went to school. Here's what Parfitt had to say about the violence-plagued republic:
Speaking about what drives terrorism in this republic and across the rest of the North Caucasus, [former Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev identified "monstrous scales of corruption" as one of the chief causes. Dagestan is not just the most welcoming of the North Caucasus's troubled republics; it is also the most deadly. And the corruption that Medvedev pointed to is at the very heart of the violence that is destroying this self-contained, traditional society.
Dagestan's isolation has preserved customs of hospitality and honor that are common to all its 32 indigenous ethnic groups. Yet Dagestan has also been shielded from moderating outside influence, something that has made it vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. The republic has the deepest Islamic tradition in the region (Arab invaders were here in the seventh century A.D.), and when religious emissaries from the Middle East began to pour in after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they found a fertile breeding ground for new recruits.
Conservative Salafis entering Dagestan came into confrontation with the Sufi "tariqats" (orders) that had dominated religious life here before the Bolsheviks. In the following two decades, a growing number of locals became Salafis -- known derogatively as Vakhkhabity (Wahhabis) in Russian -- and some joined the Islamist insurgency spreading out of Chechnya.
Dagestan has paid heavily for its involvement. The Caucasian Knot website recorded 378 insurgency-related deaths and 307 people wounded in the republic in 2010 (compared with Ingushetia with 134 deaths and 192 wounded, and Chechnya with 127 and 123). In Makhachkala, the militants -- operating from safe houses and mountain bases -- shoot and bomb the cars of police and officials. People calmly follow the plumes of smoke to take a look and film the scorched remains on their cell phones.
This terrorist war against Russian rule has been intensified by clumsy religious policy, persecution by Russian security services of suspected rebels and their families, ham-fisted economic plans that have kept many out of work, and -- as Medvedev said -- suffocating corruption.
The effect of graft is twofold. First, it feeds social discontent, as the gap widens between rich and poor. And secondly, it nurtures deeply criminalized Islamist guerrillas who rely on extortion and racketeering to keep their fight alive.
The article is worth reading in full here.
Pervez Musharraf's bizarre return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile, which has already been marked by the former president being disqualified from upcoming elections and live-tweeting his bail hearing (and exercise routine), just got even more bizarre, with the once-all powerful Pakistani leader fleeing a courtroom in Islamabad on Thursday after judges ordered his arrest over a bitter 2007 clash with the country's judiciary. The Telegraph has the best footage of the getaway (Musharraf is in the black SUV):
According to Reuters, Musharraf is now holed up in a farm outside Islamabad and police are restricting access to the area. But it's unclear whether he will actually be detained "since the military would be unlikely to tolerate such a humiliating spectacle for a retired chief." As if today's spectacle wasn't humiliating enough?
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