It’s been nearly 64 years since a string of tornadoes turned some North Dakota neighborhoods into rubble. In the years since, no other tornado outbreak would be called North Dakota’s deadliest like this one.
June 20th, 1957 was a typically hot and muggy summer day. It ended with terror and with meteorological breakthroughs the rest of the country would go on to benefit from.
The weather conditions were ripe for stormy weather that evening. Five tornadoes impacted a stretch from Buffalo, North Dakota all the way to Dale, Minnesota. There was a nearly 70-mile path of intermittent damage between the two towns. But it was an intense F-5 tornado that struck Fargo that would damage or demolish more than 1,300 homes and change the lives of thousands. With a path length of nine miles, a width of 700 feet, this historic tornado injured just over 100 people and killed at least ten. Conflicting reports have said the death toll was as high as 13. Debris was found over 50 miles away from the winds that were estimated to be anywhere from 260 mph to over 300 mph. One man was driving with his family when the tornado touched down. He told a local reporter that he and his family survived by crouching in a ditch.
“I could watch the storm coming… and it looks like to me like a great big hand just brushing the things over. I saw a chimney start to go and the roof start coming off. The big hailstones started to hit and I ducked and I grabbed a handful of weeds and clover while laying there in the ditch.” Luckily, this man and his family survived.
The forecasting abilities we had in the 50s are unmatched by what we have today. The closest radar on that day was at an Air Defense Command military base 205 miles away. It was able to pick up on only the tops of the storms… which reached 65 to 75-thousand feet. That’s almost twice the cruising altitude of a jetliner.
To put that into perspective, a mature thunderstorm is usually anywhere from 40 to 60 thousand feet. Remember, the taller the storm, the stronger it is.
Today, we have an extensive radar network that was put in place in the 90s. Along with more high resolution and sophisticated weather modeling, we are now able to forecast hours in advance when tornadoes are possible and have an average lead time once of around 8 minutes once a Tornado Warning is issued before it strikes.
Due to its visibility, this tornado was well documented and studied by Dr. Tetsuya Theodore Fujita… who would go on the invent the Fujita scale, or the F-scale tornado rating system.
With this event, he was able to coin terms we still use today like, “wall cloud” and “tail cloud”. Since it was so well captured on film, that Fargo tornado was a part of the ground-level research in how we rate tornadoes today. That tornado rating system is now known as the EF scale or the Enhanced Fujita scale
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