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Can a Sharknado hit Los Angeles?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:38 PM GMT on July 17, 2013

I learned something from watching the movie "Sharknado", SyFy Channel's twisted cross between Jaws, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which premiered last Thursday (and will be aired again this Thursday.) My hurricane disaster kit is incomplete without a chainsaw. Not only can a chainsaw come in handy to remove fallen debris after the storm--it can be an essential self-defense weapon in case a hurricane spawns a "Sharknado"--a powerful waterspout that picks up man-eating sharks out of the ocean and hurls them miles inland.

"Sharknado" is set in Los Angeles, where huge and dangerous Hurricane David is making landfall. The satellite images of the hurricane show a very nasty-looking storm that is at least Category 3, but has the rather unusual (and impossible) characteristic that it spins clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. Thousands of bloodthirsty sharks swarm inland with the hurricane's storm surge and are hurled through the air by the EF-4 waterspouts turned tornadoes that accompany the storm. A lot of blood spurts, a lot of bad acting and lame dialog occur, and plenty of improbable or impossible meteorological events happen--complete with cheesy computer graphic animations. ("Sharknado" seriously challenges The Day After Tomorrow for greatest number of impossible meteorological events packed into a single movie.) But, as long as you don't take the movie too seriously, and look at it as a campy low-budget parody of both disaster movies and horror movies, "Sharknado" is a hoot. I give "Sharknado" two stars (out of four.) The movie is produced by "B" movie studio Asylum, and stars Ian Ziering and Tara Reid. "Sharknado" is airing again at 7pm EDT/6pm CDT on Thursday, July 18, on the SyFy Channel.

Figure 1. Hurricane Linda heads north along the Baja California coast towards towards San Diego on September 12, 1997, as seen by the NOAA GOES-9 satellite. Images and rendering by Marit Jentoft-Nilsen of NASA.

Hurricanes do occur in Southern California
Southern California has been affected by one full-fledged hurricane in recorded history, a Category 1 storm that brought 80 mph winds to San Diego on October 2, 1858. More recently, a 1939 tropical storm brought 52 mph winds to the coast south of Los Angeles, and caused $2 million in property damage--mostly to shipping, shore structures, power and communication lines, and crops. Forty-five lives were lost at sea during the storm. Hurricane Linda of 1997, which occurred during a strong El Niño event that significantly warmed the ocean waters along the Mexican Pacific coast, was forecast by the National Hurricane Center for a couple of advisories to make landfall near San Diego as a minimal hurricane or strong tropical storm. Category 5 Linda was the strongest hurricane ever observed in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, but weakened over cold water and turned out to sea without affecting Southern California. A Category 3 or stronger storm affecting Southern California, as depicted in "Sharknado", is pretty much impossible in the current climate, though. The California Current that flows southwards along the coast of California and Baja Mexico features waters temperatures that are too cold to support a major hurricane.

Falls of fish from the sky
There have been numerous reports of waterspouts or tornadoes picking up fish out of the sea or out of lakes and creating a "rain of fish." For example, hundreds of perch bombarded residents of the small Australian outback town of Lajamanu in 2010. In the U.S., thousands of small fish, frogs and crayfish fell from the sky during a rainstorm at Magnolia Terminal near Thomasville, Alabama, on the morning of June 28, 1957. Many of the fish were alive and were placed in ponds and swimming pools. An F2 tornado fifteen miles to the south spawned by the outer bands of Hurricane Audrey was likely responsible for getting the creatures airborne. William Corliss' intriguing book, "Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena", has an entire chapter devoted to unusual creatures and objects that have fallen from the sky. He relates that in 1946, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History named E. W. Gudger documented 78 reliable reports of fish falls from all over the world. The largest fish was a large-mouthed bass 9 1/4 inches long, and the heaviest was a six pound fish that fell in India. There were no reports of large, 2000-pound great white sharks, as depicted by "Sharknado", though. Wunderground, for now, has decided not to create a new "Sharknado" weather icon for the web site, due to the low probability of such an event occurring with the current laws of physics being what they are.

Video 1. Official trailer for "Sharknado."

Jeff Masters

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.