14th June

Buffalo Storms

Nobody knows where they come from, or where they go after they’ve happened. It’s as if the animals, individually and in small groups, are wandering in vast, empty spaces that nobody knows about even though we’re supposed to have mapped every inch of the continent, and once in a while something triggers a coming-together, which provokes one of these storms. And, as with other forceful demonstrations of nature, there isn’t much we humans can do about it but get out of the way, or hold tight and let it come through.

Buffalo storms must in some respects resemble those mighty gatherings recorded by early white travellers on the plains. At first a storm moves slowly, but as the number of animals swells so it picks up pace. The recent Springfield-to-Syracuse event in Colorado and Kansas, which caused an estimated four hundred million dollars’ worth of damage, was monitored by experts who measured the storm track as 0.4 kilometres wide and 3.7 kilometres long, with an estimated animal density of 0.6 per square metre, reaching a top speed of 42 miles per hour. The dust cloud caused by the pounding hooves of some nine hundred thousand animals rose more than three miles.

‘You simply can’t control such a powerful phenomenon,’ says Dr Derick Cody of the Oklahoma State University. ‘Razor wire, wooden fences, concrete walls – a buffalo storm just crashes right through such barriers, doesn’t even feel them. The only possible way of diverting a storm route is by lining up a lot of trucks that are big, tall and heavy enough to turn it slightly. But you have to get the angle right or not even a forty-ton truck is going to withstand it when the storm hits. And how many truck drivers are prepared to risk sacrificing their rigs? You can’t get insurance against a buffalo storm.’

An as-yet-unsolved puzzle for scientists is how the storms dissipate so rapidly after they have wreaked their havoc. Where do a million bison go? ‘If we had the answer to that,’ says Dr Cody, ‘we could go out after them and break the cycle. But it’s a mystery.’

Many Native Americans are enthusiastic fans of buffalo storms.

Reader: Matthew Merritt
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Guitar: Sorren Maclean
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