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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, February 24, 2024

Ask Ms. Scientist: storms and twitches

Dear Ms. Scientist,

 I never hear of tornadoes hitting big cities or going over bodies of water. Since Madison is an urban center surrounded by bodies of water, does that mean it’s relatively safe from tornadoes?

                             —Joe W.

Although it may seem that cities are immune from tornadoes or tornadoes cannot cross water, this is mostly due to the fact that cities and lakes take up a small fraction of land in the Midwest. By probability it is rare that we hear about tornadoes developing over cities and lakes, making the illusion that these areas are safer than Tornado Alley’s open plains. In fact, many large cities have been affected by tornadoes within the last 20 years, like New York, Nashville and Salt Lake City.

Also, tornadoes over water are called waterspouts. Fair-weather waterspouts initially form over water and have the potential to move onto land, although it is rare. They are typically less destructive, but still dangerous. However, they more commonly form over larger, warmer bodies of water, like around the Florida Keys and occasionally over the Great Lakes, not over smaller lakes like Mendota or Monona. Tornadic waterspouts, on the other hand, begin as typical land tornadoes and then move onto water, usually without any hindrance or decrease in intensity. Therefore, campus and the rest of Madison’s isthmus are just as vulnerable to destruction from tornadoes and all safety precautions should be taken.

Dear Ms. Scientist,

Why does my dog always kick her leg when I rub her belly?

                             —Hannah P.

Your dog’s kick is an involuntary reflex, which is similar to how you would swat away a buzzing mosquito by your ear or sneeze when you breathe in dust. Even though your dog is overall greatly enjoying her rub, your hands are causing an itching or irritating sensation along her saddle region. Dogs have evolutionarily developed this kicking reflex to get rid of parasites, bugs and other irritants in this region that could cause disease. Your scratches are also simultaneously relieving the itch, which makes the reflex pointless in this situation. In other contexts, this reflex is an important indicator of your dog’s neurological health. Veterinarians will scratch a dog’s belly and look for the characteristic kick to be sure that his or her nerves and brain are working properly, just how a physician would tap on a person’s knee to make sure it jerks.

Ask Ms. Scientist is written by Corinne Thornton. If you have a burning science question you want her to answer, email it to

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