Can a Tornado Hit Downtown Chicago?

Apparently a lot of people believe that tornadoes can’t strike big cities, or at least the downtown area. It’s a little more than an old wives’ tale, but a lot less than the truth.

Wilmette Palm Sunday Tornado 1920
Palm Sunday Tornado, Wilmette, 1920 Photo: Wilmette Public Library (CC by 2.0)

There’s apparently something of a belief that big cities can’t be hit by tornadoes, or at least protected from them. Perhaps because it’s almost never happened—only the Salt Lake City tornado of 1999 and one in Atlanta in 2008 come to mind in my lifetime. Or perhaps it has to do with theories proposed by Ted Fujita:

In the past 40 years, the city of St. Louis and the surrounding suburbs of St. Louis County have been hit 22 times, although none of them were in the tiny skyscraper heart of the city. There are three possible reasons for that. First, the central city may produce a “heat island” in which turbulent rising air disrupts the formation of small tornadoes(keep in mind that most tornadoes are small). The second possibility is that the “roughness” created by the skyscrapers causes turbulence that disrupts the formation of small tornadoes. The third, is, of course, the idea that tornadoas are rare, and the central city is very small. So it is a matter of coincidence.

Professor Fujita of the University of Chicago suggested that the “heat island” effect takes hold for small tornadoes when a city reaches a population of about 1,000,000. There seems to be a lack of small tornadoes in the central cities of Chicago, Tokyo, and London. These are the only three cities that have been carefully studied over a long time.

Tornadoes obviously hit the Chicago area with some frequency. But there hasn’t been one to hit downtown since May of 1876, an F3 that killed 2 and injured 35—surprisingly fortunate numbers given that it tore up Wabash Avenue (“an ill-fated thoroughfare").  A tornado did hit Chicago in 1961, as Tom Skilling points out: an F2, moving from 91st and Western to 68th and Lake Michigan, causing seven million dollars in damage, injuring 115 people, and killing one. Flickr user Edward Schonsett has some remarkable amateur photographs of the aftermath. There’s some thought that the city’s proximity to Lake Michigan may reduce the chance of tornadoes, but I haven’t read anything that suggests a tornado anywhere in the city isn’t possible.

While reading up on Chicago tornadoes, I did come across something interesting in regards to the city’s effect on weather, the LaPorte Weather Anomaly: “a dramatic increase in unpleasant weather conditions starting around 1925, roughly corresponding with the growth in productivity of the Chicago-Gary iron and steel industry.”


2 years ago
Posted by 808

There was an F3 tornado in downtown Ft. Worth, Texas in 2000. It caused dramatic damage to a number of sky scrapers.

1 year ago
Posted by wildkitty1

I don't know how big the city has to be for you to consider it relevant but if you look up black Friday in Edmonton Alberta in Canada online you will quickly see that it has nothing to do with bargains after Thanksgiving. For anyone in Alberta that hot July day it will always mean a beautiful day that ended with the loss of many lives and damage that took years to recover from. A tornado which had wind speeds only 3 miles an hour short of being a F5 hit the Capital of Alberta in 1987 and since then many other smaller ones have come but don't get much mention online. I encourage you to see the pictures and articles for that day and see that a city of a million (well just under that in 1987 ) can be hit hard by a tornado. It mainly hit the edges but I know that winds a few years ago pulled down the whole face of the entry to a large biking down town, they were only plow winds to one directional to be a tornado but just as effective in taking down the beautiful stone work on the building. Tornadoes are rate in cities but never assume you are safe in the city. And to the fact you know nothing about a major F4 that borders on being an F5 because it took place in Canada only goes to prove most people from the US know nothing about Canada and the media and educational systems really aren't helping to fix that.

3 months ago
Posted by Birdyville

I am not a meteorologist however it seems like the towns and cities within 3 miles or so of lake Michigan on the Chicago side of the lake and further north all the way up to Zion seem to be amuned to tornados. We see some micro bursts but no major winds. Personally I feel it is because of Lake Michigan. There is always a difference in climate by the lake. It is always cooler in the summer and the humidity seems to be higher. There is also more wind that comes of the lake. It seems to me that a combo of these differences wakes it safer closer to the lake. The further west you go the more tornados you see. Mchenry comes to mind. It is close to 15 miles from the lake and sees more activity. If you go much further west to areas like Rockford Il they become even more prominante. Just one mans opinion. Lol
P.S. there are less trailer parks around the lake. That must be it.

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