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U.S. Weather Experts: Yes, a Tornado Could Sink a Chinese Cruise Ship

China’s citizens are skeptical, but American meteorologists find the official story plausible.

SOUTH OF DIMMITT, TX - JUNE 2:  A tornado strikes the landscape south of Dimmitt, Texas, 02 June 1995.  (Photo credit should read HARALD RICHTER/AFP/Getty Images)
SOUTH OF DIMMITT, TX - JUNE 2: A tornado strikes the landscape south of Dimmitt, Texas, 02 June 1995. (Photo credit should read HARALD RICHTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Can a level 12 tornado topple a cruise ship large enough to carry 400 people? That’s the story that Chinese state media has been telling. On the evening of June 1, a boat carrying 456 passengers capsized in 50 feet of water while traveling the Yangtze, a major river in southern China. With 430 passengers still missing, the sinking of the vessel, called the Oriental Star, could become China’s worst boating disaster in more than 70 years if rescue efforts fail. The accident has captured the nation’s attention, and the ship’s captain, who survived the accident and whom Chinese media now reports to be in official custody, claimed that a longjuanfeng, a Chinese word meaning tornado or cyclone, had caused the cruiser to capsize.

Chinese state media is backing up the captain’s story, claiming that a twister with level 12 winds — the most severe — hit 18 minutes after detection, leaving insufficient time for a proper warning on which a ship’s crew could act. Yet the claim has struck many Chinese netizens as far-fetched, and, alongside an online outpouring of dismay and sympathy for the passengers’ families, has driven online debate since the accident. “If tornadoes are a possibility, are predictions for tornadoes not a possibility?” asked one user of Weibo, China’s largest public social media platform. In fact, while a competent weather bureau can help provide early warnings, that is not possible in all cases, according to Christopher Strong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Tornadoes can indeed spin up with little to no notice,” Strong told Foreign Policy. “Sometimes there is warning, and sometimes there is not.” Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, told FP that the U.S. system has the “best tornado detection in the world,” but even so, the “average U.S. lead time is 13 minutes.”

While it’s well known in China that the United States suffers from frequent and sometimes deadly twisters, many Chinese also seemed unaware that while the phenomena are rare in China, they do occur. “I have never seen a tornado in my hometown,” one Weibo user in Hubei, the province where the ship capsized, wrote on June 2. “This is really sketchy.” But thunderstorms are in fact common on the Yangtze River, especially during the rainy season, and conditions on June 1 were ripe for a twister. “It’s an area where supercell thunderstorms — the storms that make almost all of the strong tornadoes and very large hail — are common,” Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, told FP, adding that the data available to him, though limited, “strongly suggests that the environment was favorable for tornadoes.”

The Chinese suspicion toward official reports may be due in part to previous state media attempts to cover up deadly disasters, most notably a high-speed train crash in the southern city of Wenzhou in July 2011. But here, the doubts appear misplaced. It may seem extraordinary that a cyclone could capsize a large boat, but this has happened before. Again, U.S. experience is instructive. In 1978, a dinner theater showboat called the Whippoorwill overturned on a Kansas lake after it crossed paths with a tornado too small to be detected on radar. Bruce Rogers, the owner of the boat, later said that the crew had had “less than two minutes” to react to the coming twister, and 15 of the 59 passengers perished in what became the worst boating disaster in Kansas history at that point.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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