Extreme weather: 3 facts you may not know

Wildfires spread across the California forests due to prolonged drought. Powerful tornadoes spiral through the plains of Oklahoma. Three-hundred foot glaciers crumble in Alaska, sending shards of ice the size of cars flying into the air.

These different extreme weather patterns are connected. For example, heat generated by the wildfires has a lasting impact on retreating glaciers.

Scientists are working to understand these weather patterns and how they will affect the planet, and you can experience the excitement and learn about climate in a new IMAX film from National Geographic, “Extreme Weather 3D.”

To understand what climate change could mean — and what you can expect to see on the big screen — here are some interesting facts about weather.

Tornadoes are usually weak

Movies may lead viewers to believe tornadoes wipe out towns, but 76 percent are gale tornadoes or moderate tornadoes, moving at rates of 40-112 miles per hour, based on the Fujita Scale, according to the Tornado Project. They can damage chimneys and break tree branches or overturn mobile homes and push moving cars off the road.

On the other end of the scale are devastating tornadoes, which level houses and throw cars, and incredible tornadoes, which lift houses and damage steel-reinforced concrete. These account for only 1 percent of tornadoes.

Glacial ice is blue

Ice in your freezer or hanging from your rooftop has a transparent look, but glacial ice is extremely dense and hard from hundreds of years of built up snowfall. As such, only the blue wavelength of light can bounce off, while other colors are absorbed, according to Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.

Water that melts off these frozen glaciers is used for agriculture and human consumption and provides, for example, 75 percent of Washington's water, according to alaskacenters.gov.

However, if the ice melts too quickly, the glaciers collapse so no water can be used, and entire ecosystems run the risk of also collapsing.

The most dangerous wildfires are in fall

Scorching heatwaves may lead you to assume the worst wildfires are in summer, but the most dangerous fire conditions, specifically in California, occur from the end of September to December, according to climatecentral.org.

“It is during these fall months when Santa Ana winds from the desert interact with the driest fuels of the season after five to six months of drying,” said U.S. Forest Service Ecologist Hugh Safford.

Bringing extreme weather to IMAX

To illustrate these weather phenomena, filmmakers for “Extreme Weather 3D” had to run into the storm. Doing so would have been impossible without science, technology, engineering and math, along with careful planning in unpredictable environments, said Sean Casey, the film's director, cinematographer and producer.

“Engineering was a big part of this film,” Casey said. “We were going into dangerous places, and we had to engineer devices that could take us there as safely as possible.

“With the tornadoes, I designed and built an armored vehicle that was created to withstand the powerful winds and the debris. The vehicle has 2 1/4-inch walls of armor, panels that dropped to the ground to block the wind so that a tornado could go over that vehicle, and spikes in the ground to anchor it.

“For the glaciers we bought a twin jet boat, and we put armor on it as well so that we could get close to these glaciers and be inside the impact zone where you would get chunks of ice being thrown 200-300 yards out from that explosion.”

Scientists with the film also studied how climate change effects current and future weather.

“The scientists who worked on the film created devices (pods) that could go into tornadoes so that they could find if tornado outbreaks are growing more extreme," Casey said. "With the glaciologists, they had a variety of instruments to measure the ice melt off the glacier. They had a remote-controlled boat that was used to sonically listen to the activity of the glacier. They were doing time lapse photography to show how the glacier moved.

“There was a variety of stuff the scientists were doing that was quite interesting as well, but as precise as they tried to be, nothing in this environment is or was controlled. You cannot control the weather, and sometimes the devices didn’t work out as planned. We definitely experienced a lot of surprises while filming.”

You can take part in that experience by watching "Extreme Weather 3D" at the IMAX Indiana State Museum. Check imax.com for showtimes.

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