Trinidad has been hit by a tornado yet again, marking the 5th in the last three years. Multiple homes, structures, and vehicles are damaged in the agricultural community of Los Iros in South Trinidad. There have been no reports of injuries or fatalities.
Though conditions remained mostly hot and sunny across the country, an isolated severe thunderstorm developed across extreme southwestern Trinidad at approximately 2:30 PM, with tornado touchdown estimated at approximately 2:50 PM on August 16th, 2021.
Shortly after 3:00 PM, damage reports were received by the Siparia Regional Corporation’s Disaster Management Unit, Dana O’Neil-Gervais, Councilor for Palo Seco, which covers a portion of Los Iros and other relevant response agencies.
This highly isolated thunderstorm moved quickly out to sea and dissipated by approximately 5:00 PM.
How Did the Tornado Form?
Across Trinidad and Tobago, a deep-layered high-pressure system was in place with a surge of Saharan Dust moving across the region. Generally across the country, breezy weather from the east-northeast to east-southeast occurred on Monday.
However, with high temperatures, westerly winds can develop near Trinidad’s west coast and cause sea breeze convergence, triggering thunderstorms. At Piarco, a maximum high of 32.9°C was recorded. Closer to Los Iros, in Chatham, the maximum high was near 30.0°C and in Penal, a high of 33.0°C
Conditions were atypical for this tornado, as no light winds per se were present and moisture remained quite limited across the area though wind shear was relatively light, at 5-10 knots.
Several atmospheric conditions needed to come together across Southern Trinidad for this rare phenomenon to form.
Tornado formation is not completely understood and there are two main ways a tornado may form. In the case of the 2021 Los Iros Tornado, the below mechanism is the likely explanation for how this tornado formed.
Firstly, a horizontal spinning effect must form on the Earth’s surface. This usually originates in sudden changes in wind direction or speed, known as wind shear. Secondly, a thundercloud, or occasionally a cumulus cloud, must be present.
During a thunderstorm, updrafts are occasionally powerful enough to lift the horizontal spinning row of air upwards, turning it into a vertical air column. This vertical air column then becomes the basic structure for the tornado. Tornadoes that form in this way are often weak and generally last less than 10 minutes.
Around 2:45 PM, residents in Los Iros spotted the funnel cloud. This funnel cloud persisted and eventually touched down.
By 2:50 PM, the intense rotating column of air associated with the funnel cloud touched down. Note that sometimes that rapidly rotating column of air gets in contact with the ground *without* a funnel cloud touching down, for various reasons, which is known as a tornado without a funnel.
Ramesh Bhagwandeen, who lived to tell the tale, recounted, “There was a hard breeze spinning that damaged everything inside of here (R.E. Road). Whole houses gone. Roofs gone. Cars damaged. Vehicles damaged. Crops damaged. Everything damaged inside of here.”
According to activist Victor Roberts, one of the first people on the ground following the tornado, “The residents started to hear a sound coming from heaven like a tractor coming down to earth. They said they saw house roofs moving with galvanize flying, falling about a mile and a quarter away. Trees were uprooted, and whole homes were destroyed, flattened.”
Roberts explained it was difficult to navigate the area due to several downed utility poles and live power lines. Residents scampered for safety as strong winds associated with the uncommon tornado torn across the farmlands. Some even resorted to diving under vehicles, according to Roberts.
Tornadoes are generally rated on a damage-based scale called the Enhanced Fujita Scale in the United States and Canada, though other regions have different tornado scales. This scale uses the damage (or lack thereof) to rate the wind speeds of the tornado after the event.
In Trinidad, our previous tornado activity tends to be weak, generally ranking at an EF-0 tornado. With an EF-0 tornado, winds between 105 KM/H to 137 KM/H occur. Damage typical for this scale of a tornado is a peeled off surface from some roofs; some damage to gutters or siding; branches broken off trees; shallow-rooted trees pushed over.
With the 2021 Los Iros Tornado, according to Dana O’Neil-Gervais, Councilor for Palo Seco, which covers a portion of Los Iros and the Disaster Management Unit Coordinator for the area, Councilor Denzil Roopchand, unsecured roofs were partially or totally blown off, with some walls damaged and galvanize sheets mangled in trees and utility poles.
In addition, according to activist Victor Roberts, trees were uprooted at least 22 buildings damaged due to partial or total roofs blown off, with seven structures destroyed and four vehicles damaged.
In the case of the 2021 Los Iros Tornado, it lasted generally a few minutes with localized damage to the Los Iros area, along R.E. Road. Though damage appeared severe due to the weak structures associated with sheds for agriculture purposes, this tornado, based on damage, is likely an EF-0 to EF-1. In an EF-1, in addition to the damage at the EF-0 scale, roofs are severely stripped with weaker homes badly damaged, there is the loss of exterior doors and windows or other glass broken.
Tornadoes and Trinidad
It is not certain how frequently the country experiences a tornado as there really has been no good (or at least public) record-keeping of tornado events across Trinidad and Tobago. Until 2019, the country experienced a confirmed tornado once every decade, with the 2009 Caroni Plains tornado then the 2019 Cunupia Tornado the last the pattern held.
However, since 2019, the country has now recorded five confirmed tornado events: 2019 Cunupia and Port of Spain tornadoes, the 2020 Chase Village and D’Abadie tornadoes, and now, the 2021 Los Iros event.
Generally, these events occur during August through October when the country experiences light winds, high atmospheric moisture, and a favorable wind profile through the atmosphere to allow for thunderstorms to develop a rotating updraft that makes its way to the ground. This setup generally occurs following the passages of tropical cyclones north of the country or with tropical waves.
In the last three days, three tornadic events occurred in the country: a waterspout spotted near Vessigny Beach and a funnel cloud spotted across Caroni, both on August 14th with a tornado in Los Iros on August 16th.
It’s even more difficult to ascertain what exactly was a tornado versus the more common straight-line winds across Trinidad. Media reports and the general public usually attributes major wind damage to “twister-like” or “tornado-like” events.
Nine times out of ten, wind damage across Trinidad and Tobago can be attributed to gusty winds from thunderstorms or straight-line winds.
However, we’re trying to build a database of these events by scouring media reports dating back to the early 1900s to come up with how frequently these events occur and where have they occurred in the past.
There is no conclusive evidence that says these tornadic events are linked to climate change at this time. Climatologists have already linked climate change to an increase in frequency in stronger, localized showers and thunderstorms already affecting Trinidad. However, with widespread use of camera phones and the internet, vastly improving the reporting of inclement weather, may allow us to pick up reports of funnel clouds, waterspouts and tornadoes that were already occurring. Still, a warmer atmosphere allows for more instability and stronger daytime heating, leading to these stronger thunderstorms potentially producing tornadic events during the afternoon.
Tornadoes across Trinidad and Tobago remain a very rare feature, but due to a lack of technology to issue and disseminate timely warnings to the public, it is imperative you know what to do in the event one occurs.