Header Jasper jpeg

The present age, thanks to video and the Internet, is amply supplied with tornado images. Before this era, and especially for people outside the United States, they were hard to come by. Meteorological texts tended to use the same old favourites, and one of the most popular was the photograph of a tornado near Jasper, Minnesota, taken by Lucille Handberg on 8th July 1927.

The Jasper tornado

It became so familiar as to be a cliché, and one has to see the double-page spread devoted to it in the Illustrated London News of 7th July, 1928 to fully realise how awesome it is. The ILN was impressed also. They described it as 'an amazing photograph of a tornado at its height' and 'the finest photograph of a tornado ever taken', and it is still in the running for that honour even today.

Miss Handberg, who at the time was a South Dakota schoolgirl, first saw the tornado 4 miles west of Jasper when it was about a mile away, in the late hours of a hot, still afternoon. It moved very slowly, almost at walking pace, covering two miles in about 20 minutes. There was no lightning. She did not hear any roar. The photograph is looking north-east, and the tornado is moving from left to right. Where the tornado touched earth it was about 300 feet wide. At its narrowest it was about 35 feet wide, widening to 90 feet where it entered the cloud.

Miss Handberg took two other photographs of this tornado, one before the well-known image and one after. The first, which seems to have been taken just after she came outside, shows the dust-wrapped tube extending almost horizontally beyond some farm roofs and a windmill. It was described by the ILN of 18th August, 1928 as 'like a vacuum-cleaner in the sky…a tornado…gaining force and stretching across the heavens in a gigantic tube…a phenomenon typical of American storms'. The last photo, which Miss Handberg took after pursuing the tornado for a quarter of a mile (possibly becoming the first storm chaser), shows the elongated tube winding off into the dusk and forming (in an illusion of perspective) a 'loop'.

Two minutes later, the tube, after extending to an immense length, broke, and the upper half withdrew into the clouds. It left behind three 'perfect rings, like that thrown off by a locomotive', which drifted off. 'When all this had happened, a black thing like a snake appeared out of the cloud for a moment, wiggled, and disappeared.' Finally the cloud of dust raised by the vortex rose from the ground and faded away. The tornado was watched for 45 minutes by hundreds of people. It did only light damage to roofs, windmills and farm buildings. For this reason, it was not counted as 'significant' by Thomas Grazulis in his great tome
Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991, which seems rather hard, as for many years it was possibly the most well-known tornado in the world. He also suggested that the photograph had been retouched to emphasise the dust, which seems unlikely. Why gild the lily?

GNP Jasper tornado 01
First photo of the Jasper tornado (drawing from photograph)

GNP Jasper tornado 03
Last photo of the Jasper tornado (drawing from photograph)

Tornado Jaspersketch
The dissipating stage of the Jasper tornado

There was excitement in Canada also on 8th July, 1927. At Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, a darkness like midnight fell at 2 pm, just before one of the most severe wind storms ever known there. Another tornado on this day had its photograph taken at Vulcan, Alberta. (see below). It was larger than the Jasper tornado, although not quite so photogenic. Its likeness did appear in several editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica during the 1960s. Tornado photographs were thin on the ground back then.

The Vulcan, Alberta, tornado

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