1764 Woldegk Tornado: The Strongest in History

May 18, 2023 0 comments

On June 29, 1764, almost the entire town of Woldegk was in church attending a day of repentance and prayer. Also known as Buß- und Bettag, it is a public holiday celebrated in Saxony where German people go to the church to pray and show remorse for their sins and reflect on their faith in God. While still in church, a powerful tornado ripped through Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, destroying homes and barns and uprooting trees. Despite the violent nature of the twister, only one person lost their life; the rest safe within the rugged stone walls of the church. One can presume that had the tornado occurred on any other day, the death toll would surely have been greater.

A copper engraving by Gottlob Burchard Genzmer showing the tornado.

At the time, science was still in its infancy, most people were illiterate and freak weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes stuck without warning. There were no instruments to measure the severity of these weather events either, and only by piecing together information gathered from eyewitness accounts and damage assessments, can one hope to prepare a report of these incidents. German scientist Gottlob Burchard Genzmer did a fantastic job here researching the storm that hit Woldegk and published a detailed report on the occurrence six months later. Thanks to his brilliant work, we now know that the Woldegk tornado was an F5 on the Fujita scale (or T11 on the TORRO scale)—the highest ever awarded, making it one of the strongest tornadoes ever documented in history.

The following description of the storm and its route is based on Genzmer’s report.

Genzmer's map showing the tornado’s path.

The tornado touched down about 1.5 km southwest of Feldberg at just after one in the afternoon. It uprooted some oak and beech trees, and as it moved northeast, it picked up two children and threw them into a lake. At this point, the tornado was believed to have been of F2-F3 strength. As the wind intensified, the skies began to rain down hail the size of a fist and up to half a kilogram in weight. The hail killed several geese.

The tornado was now 100 meters in width, and as it crossed the lake it caused the water level to rise and then retreat. After crossing the lake, the tornado destroyed a home, blowing away the roof and tearing down the walls. At this structure, the only fatality from the tornado occurred.

The tornado then shifted north and completely destroyed a beech timber forest. Now the tornado was 225 meters wide and increasing in strength. It was probably an F3-F4 now. It uprooted several solitary oak trees and threw them 35 meters into the air. It also scoured the ground, removing crops, grass and the topsoil. The tornado then turned northeast, where it completely destroyed Lichtenberg forest.

Shortly after emerging from the Lichtenberg forest, the tornado reached its peak intensity. It completely destroyed a mansion with an adjacent diary farm. Oak tree stubs were ripped out of the ground and cobblestones weighing 75 kilograms were thrown around. The European Severe Storms Laboratory estimated that the wind speed would have been around 300 miles per hour (480 kmph). An eyewitness saw several birds caught and trapped within the vortex of the storm.

A copper plate by Genzmer showing various types of forestry damage caused by the tornado.

At the ruins of the ‘Rothe Kirche’, the tornado uprooted an old oak and lifted a skeleton out of a grave. The tornado reached its maximum width of 900 meters as it caused severe damage to an oak and beech tree forest, followed by a mansion and some barns. Further to the northeast, the tornado struck an airborne flock of geese, killing some and injuring 60-100 others. The tornado finally dissipated at Helpte after moving for an hour, during which it left a trail of devastation 30 km long.

Genzmer, a Lutheran theologian, tutor and naturalist, visited the scene of catastrophe some two months later. He meticulously recorded the damage, measuring the circumference of mighty oak trunks that lie uprooted along the avenues, and the thickness of foundation walls upon which houses once stood. He paced the distance that lied between a barn and the blown-off roof. He made sketches of broken oak stubs and twisted branches. He inquired about the exact weather conditions on the day of the storm, and interviewed people who saw the twister, carefully checking their credibility in order to stay true to the truth.

Genzmer's observations resulted in a 56-page, 77-paragraph detailed report which he published as a book. It remains one of the most important testimonies in the history of science from the period.

Genzmer's report, despite being such a rarity, was forgotten for nearly 250 years until it was dug up from archives of the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania State Library in Schwerin by Heidelberg physicist Bernold Feuerstein, who works intensively on extreme weather events and is involved in organizations such as Skywarn and ESSL (European Severe Storms Laboratory).

“The report provides an excellently detailed description of the event, which still lives up to today's standards. There is no reference to a supernatural event. Genzmer proceeds very empirically. It's about facts, a description of the event, not so much an explanation,” explains Feuerstein.

Thomas Sävert, a meteorologist at the Meteogroup Severe Weather Center and an expert in extreme weather, agrees: “This is unique for a tornado of this magnitude. In the late 18th century - a period of which we know very little - that is very rare.”

# A violent tornado in mid-18th century Germany: the Genzmer Report, ECSS 2015 - European Conference on Severe Storms At: Wiener Neustadt, Austria
# Der Jahrtausendtornado von Woldegk vom 29. Juni 1764, Norddeutscher Rundfunk


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