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Bogdan Antonescu, David M. Schultz, Hugo M. A. M. Ricketts, and Dragoş Ene

Abstract

Tornadoes and waterspouts have long fascinated humankind through their presence in myths and popular beliefs and originally were believed to have supernatural causes. The first theories explaining weather phenomena as having natural causes were proposed by ancient Greek natural philosophers. Aristotle was one of the first natural philosophers to speculate about the formation of tornadoes and waterspouts in Meteorologica (circa 340 BCE). Aristotle believed that tornadoes and waterspouts were associated with the wind trapped inside the cloud and moving in a circular motion. When the wind escapes the cloud, its descending motion carries the cloud with it, leading to the formation of a typhon (i.e., tornado or waterspout). His theories were adopted and further nuanced by other Greek philosophers such as Theophrastus and Epicurus. Aristotle’s ideas also influenced Roman philosophers such as Lucretius, Seneca, and Pliny the Elder, who further developed his ideas and also added their own speculations (e.g., tornadoes do not need a parent cloud). Almost ignored, Meteorologica was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, initially from an Arabic version, leading to much greater influence over the next centuries and into the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century, the first book-length studies on tornadoes and waterspouts were published in Italy and France, marking the beginning of theoretical and observational studies on these phenomena in Europe. Even if speculations about tornadoes and waterspouts proposed by Greek and Roman authors were cited after the nineteenth century only as historical pieces, core ideas of modern theories explaining these vortices can be traced back to this early literature.

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