Microburst tornado eastern cape

More wild weather: Bizarre “microburst” destroys villages in Eastern Cape

The “tornado” reported in the Eastern Cape was actually a different weather phenomenon altogether – but what is a microburst, and how is it so dangerous?

Microburst tornado eastern cape

Looking back, the last month or so has been nothing short of hectic for our weather forecasts. We’ve had intense flooding, reported tremors, and even a claim for the hottest day ever recorded in South Africa. Now we’re being hit by “microbursts” – destructive winds which have ripped through villages in the Eastern Cape.

No tornado for the Eastern Cape

The damage is extensive, but labelling this weather event as a tornado is simply incorrect. The South African Weather Service (Saws) have dismissed theories that a tornado hit this part of the country last week. Instead, they have blamed it all on a completely different weather phenomenon:

“On Friday evening, 29 November 2019, thunderstorms moved over the interior of the Eastern Cape between 14:00 and 15:00 SAST. They resulted in strong winds which caused destruction in several villages near Alice and Fort Beaufort.” 

“Residents said there was a short period of strong winds which resulted in dust storms and damage to certain structures. Although several media reports have made mention to a tornado occurrence, Saws can confirm that it was not a tornado, but rather a microburst from the storm that resulted in these short lived adverse conditions.” 

Saws statement

What is a microburst?

According to the experts at Saws, a microburst is an intense small-scale downdraft produced by a thunderstorm that can result in very strong winds. Microburstscan cause extensive damage at the surface, and in some instances, can be life-threatening. We must stress, they are in a league below tornados.

Three separate tornados hit KZN last month, but there was to be no quartet for the East Coast. In fact, the microburst happened on the same day South Africa allegedly recorded its hottest ever temperature. Saws were adamant that Vioolsdrif in the Northern Cape reached 54C – but other experts are unconvinced.

Microbursts, and “the hottest temperature in South Africa” in one day

Etienne Kapikian is a French meteorologist, and he’s been studying the freak result over the weekend. He has dismissed the reading as “impossible”, poking holes in suggestions that Mzansi set a new temperature record. However, he accepts the region could have recorded something between 44 – 48C. That wouldn’t be enough to beat the hottest day ever seen in SA: That was a scorching 50.0C in the Eastern Cape, back in 1922.

“This is an obvious instrumental error case. You just don’t get a national and even continental all-time record be shattered in one local place and no all-time records all around. There were some monthly record highs in nearby stations but if ever a reliable 50C had happened in Vioolsdrif there would have been [many more] all-time record high temperatures falling all over the region, which isn’t the case.”

“I really insist on the comparison with Noordoewer (Namibia). On the 28th, the difference between Vioolsdrif’s 50.1°C maximum and Noordoewer’s 41.5°C (or maybe a bit more) is far too high and impossible. 50°C in Vioolsdrif’s area would require an exceptional unprecedented hot airmass, which was not the case.”

Etienne Kapikian