THE FOREBODING BEACHES OF LAKE MICHIGAN — Scientists agree: A real "sharknado" is unlikely to happen in Chicago.
The internet went nuts last week when the Syfy channel announced a fourth installment to its cult cable movie franchise about disastrous tornadoes swirling with killer sharks. People raised their eyebrows when reports came that "Clueless" star-turned-conservative political commentator Stacey Dash was cast as the mayor of Chicago.
A Syfy spokeswoman confirmed that disaster scenes will be set here, and Dash will preside over the fictional wreckage. Playing off her controversial views on race in real life, Dash will also appear in a morning talk show scene with Howard Stern sidekick Benjy Bronk during the made-for-TV film, which premieres July 31.
That got us thinking: could a "sharknado," or tornado with sharks, actually occur in Chicago?
What if sharks found their way here after navigating the Great Lakes and/or Mississippi River watershed?
What if a mega tornado picked up sharks from the Pacific Ocean and flew them through the Great Plains?
What if the polar ice caps melt and Chicago lies on the new East Coast in a post-apocalyptic world?
We asked the experts.
"As much as I think the 'Sharknado' movies are entertaining, there's really not a whole lot of scientific fact to them," said George Parsons, who's been a senior curator in the fish department at Shedd Aquarium for 28 years. "Which I truly love."
First: Sharks are saltwater creatures, and intelligent ones that "don't really like to be in situations they don't want to be" such as in fresh water, Parsons said.
Second: They have very sensitive "electroreceptors" that can detect lightning and other signs of bad storms that could lift them out of the ocean. Like other fish, sharks also have "lateral line" sensors that detect nearby movement and vibrations in the water.
Aside from breeding season, sharks also prefer to hunt alone, meaning there aren't too many clusters of them for a tornado to find.
Parsons said the closest a shark ever came to Chicago was downstate Alton near St. Louis, where a very lost bull shark was once found in the Mississippi River. The series of manmade locks and dams in the river and barriers since installed in Lake Michigan to keep Asian carp away likely ensure a shark wouldn't swim all the way to Chicago today, he said.
It would take about 15 hours for a tornado to move from the closest point of the West Coast to Chicago, or too much time for a shark to survive without water, Parsons said. That's assuming swirling tornado debris doesn't kill the sharks first.
Tornadoes, the other element of a sharknado, are also rare here. The last "substantial" tornado in Chicago swept through the South Side from suburban Oak Lawn in 1967, said Ed Fenelon, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service's Chicago office in suburban Romeoville.
Storms generally move west to east, so tornadoes that originate over Lake Michigan are even more rare. The last one that did came in 2006 near Rogers Park but never moved ashore, Fenelon said.
Chicago, unlike heartland states such as Oklahoma and Kansas, doesn't sit in the "perfect colliding ground" for air masses that form tornadoes, Fenelon said. Lake Michigan also offers a bit of a "stabilizing effect" that mitigates serious storms that evolve into tornadoes more often Downstate, he said.
Believe it or not, sharks are actually "timid" creatures that cause less harm than humans, Parsons said. People are more likely to get struck by lightning than bit by a shark, he said, and it's important society doesn't vilify the big fish.
"They're portrayed as these killers that surf tornadoes; they would just be so confused," Parsons said. "They wouldn't know which end is up."
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