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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 01 2012

NDSU climatologist urges children to wear helmets during tornado warnings (with video)

FARGO – It’s twister season, and beyond a flashlight, weather radio and good shelter, Adnan Akyuz wants you to strap on a brain bucket.

Yep, bicycle helmets are not just for the trail, the North Dakota State University climatology professor says. They’re also an easy addition to a family’s tornado survival kit.

Akyuz, who is also North Dakota’s state climatologist, made his annual pitch for anti-twister toppers at Kennedy Elementary School on Tuesday, helping first-graders understand how tornadoes are formed – and encouraging them to take care of their noggins.

“Knowing what it is and how it forms is very important. We always develop fear for something that we don’t know about,” Akyuz said.

North Dakota gets 21 to 22 tornadoes a year and most of them are categorized as the less-destructive EF1 and EF2 tornadoes.

“Tornado alley” through the central and southern part of the U.S., on the other hand, has several states with dozens of tornadoes annually, many of them highly destructive EF4 and EF5 twisters.

A helmet isn’t a guaranteed life-saver, Akyuz said, but it can help improve chances of survival when debris is flying.

That’s why Akyuz wishes local television meteorologists and the National Weather Service would encourage people to use bicycle helmets during extreme weather. Baseball or motorcycle helmets are fine, too, he said.

“It’s a proven device, a helmet, and you already have it,” he said. “I guarantee most homes have bicycle helmets. That’s the beauty of them. I’m not asking people to go out and buy something new. I’m asking them to use something they already have.”

Surrounded by helmet-wearing first-graders, Akyuz gave each group quick, simple lessons in the science behind the storms.

A ball bearing and a turning disk painted like a map of the Earth explained the Coriolis effect that turns our winds.

Volunteers from the audience, a hair dryer, a 195-mph leaf blower, and a couple of balls helped explain how high-pressure and low-pressure air move.

But the show stopper was Akyuz’s tornado booth.

Developed by NDSU engineering students, the booth looks like a movie theater popcorn maker. It comes with a hot plate for melting dry ice; blowers and louvers to control air flow; and lights for lightning effects.

Tossing in some dried ice, which creates a fog as it melts, Akyuz turned on the machine. Viola! Instant funnel cloud.

“A real live tornado,” Akyuz said.

“That’s awesome!” “Cooool!” the kids say.

First-grade teacher Suzi Uggerud said her young charges worry about threatening weather and storm sirens. The knowledge helps them cope, but a solid helmet is reassuring, she said.

“It makes them feel safer, too, if they have bike helmets,” she said. “So if they put that on, they feel a little more secure.”

Akyuz told the students of an incident in Alabama where an EF5 tornado picked up a child who was wearing a helmet. The child landed hard enough on the helmet to crack it, but survived, he said.

“Do you know what would have cracked if he didn’t wear a helmet?” Akyuz asked the students.

“His head!” the students yelled back as one.

“Now it’s your turn to teach your parents,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583