Tornadoes are among the most threatening storms to your safety and your home. They are born from thunderstorms and appear as funnel-shaped clouds, moving as fast as 250 miles per hour (Missouri StormAware). Their damage can reach a mile wide and 50 miles long. Depending on the size of a tornado, you may see it ahead of time, or it may hit with no warning at all.
Some interesting facts about tornadoes include:
- An average of 70 fatalities and 1,500 injuries are caused by tornadoes in the United States every year.
- Rotating winds of 250 mph are the strongest possible.
- Tornadoes can be transparent until picking up dust or other debris from the ground.
- They can grab water and create a waterspout, which causes damage to beaches and homes on the coasts.
Tornadoes 101: Facts
Whether you’re living in tornado alley or are concerned that you might encounter a tornado in the future, it’s good to have the facts:
Where do tornadoes occur?
Tornadoes are common around the globe, occurring in Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America in addition to North America (NSSL). Tornadoes are less common at higher elevations because they have cooler, more stable air. Thus you’re more likely to run into a tornado in humid areas where air is unstable and provides the energy for thunderstorms to form, which leads to tornadoes. This includes areas east of the Rocky Mountains and in the South.
How often do they occur in the United States?
A reported 1,200 tornadoes touch down in the United States every year (NSSL). Interestingly, records only go back to 1950, so historical averages are hard to determine prior to that time.
What area is defined as “tornado alley?”
Tornado alley is hard to define but is commonly described as the central part of the United States — Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas (WWK). While tornadoes are common in this region, they occur outside of this area quite often.
When is tornado season?
Peak season varies throughout the United States (NSSL).
- Southern Plains: May to June
- Gulf Coast: Springtime
- Northern Plains/Upper Midwest: June/July
Tornadoes can happen at any time throughout the year, so you should always be prepared at all times. They’re also most likely to occur in the evening.
What is a tornado watch or tornado warning?
A tornado watch comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Storm Prediction Center and can cover one part of a state or many states. It means that you should keep an eye out for a storm, but it may or may not happen. A tornado warning comes from your local NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office, and a thunderstorm is imminent. Take it seriously and get to a safe shelter immediately (NSSL).
What is the difference between a funnel cloud and real tornado?
A funnel-shaped cloud is the beginning of a tornado, extending from a thunderstorm’s cloud area. When a funnel cloud starts to reach the ground, it’s transformed into a tornado (WWK).
How do tornadoes form?
While scientists aren’t entirely certain, it’s believed that thunderstorm supercells — rotating thunderstorms with lots of rotating winds — create tornadoes along with the temperature fluctuations between downdraft air and the mesocyclone (WU). To learn more about how a tornado forms, check out this animation from National Geographic.
What is tornado strength? How is it rated?
Tornado strength (i.e., wind speed) is determined by its damage. In 2007, scientists enhanced the original Fujita scale (F-scale), which didn’t originally take into account the amount of damage a tornado caused. Now, the “Enhanced Fujita Scale” accurately rates a tornado’s wind speed based on how much damage it causes. It takes 28 damage indicators and uses 8 degrees of damage — visible damage to complete destruction.
What was the deadliest tornado in U.S. history?
The deadliest tornado on record was on March 18, 1925. This tornado resulted in 747 casualties and 2,027 injuries across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana (CEF). It was actually the result of several twisters touching the ground in one day. The largest one was called the “Tri-State;” it claimed 695 lives.
Other Tornado Facts:
- 75% of the world’s tornadoes happen in the United States.
- In 1928, a Kansas tornado plucked the feathers from some chickens.
- In 1931, a Mississippi tornado lifted an 83-ton train and tossed it 80 feet from the track.
- A tornado’s color matches the color of the ground.
- Some tornadoes make noise while others make almost none.
- Most tornadoes travel southwest to northeast and can move in the opposite direction for short periods of time or backtrack.
- The sky turns a greenish color when a tornado is on the rise.
- Tornadoes last up to 1-2 hours.
- In the late 1980s, a tornado hit Yellowstone, leaving a path of destruction up and down a 10,000-foot mountain.
- Only 2% of all tornadoes are considered “violent tornadoes.”
Before, During & After a Tornado
It’s important for you to take steps before, during and after a tornado. You don’t want to be caught unaware and in potential danger. Here are some resources below on what to do before a tornado like having a kit prepared so you don’t go hungry or go without hydration. You’ll also find tips on what to do during a storm so you aren’t caught in deadly winds. Then after the storm, there are some safety tips to keep you from injury or some dangerous situations. Learn more below.
- Have a disaster plan. Make sure everyone knows where to go when a tornado warning is issued, and know which county or parish you live in.
- Prepare a kit with emergency food for your home. Have enough food and water for at least three days.
- Check the NOAA weather alerts. Be on alert for any news or smartphone notifications that warn of an impending tornado.
- Look for signs of a tornado, like:
- Greenish skies
- Severe thunderstorms with funnel-shaped clouds
- Loud, roaring sounds
- Go to a basement. If you don’t have a basement or shelter area, head to the most central, windowless area of your home (e.g., closet or bathroom).
- Get under furniture. This could be a table, perhaps an armoire or a mattress with a frame that isn’t going to blow away easily.
- If you’re a mobile home resident, get out. Your home will be destroyed by a tornado in minutes.
- Never stay in a car. Don’t try to speed away from a tornado, either. Just ditch it.
- If you’re somehow trapped outside during a tornado, find a ditch or bridge and lie underneath it.
- Avoid damaged areas and fallen power lines.
- Stay indoors until you hear from NOAA or police that it’s safe.
- Look for neighbors or others nearby without putting yourself in danger.
- Avoid fallen power lines, broken electrical wires or blown plumbing pipes.
- Do not go back into your home if the structure has fallen apart.
So far, in 2015, the largest tornado outbreaks in the United States have included:
- April 9, 2015
- Most violent in Rochelle/Fairdale, Illinois
- Passed through Peoria, IL to Cape Giradeau, MO
- 24 reports, 45 warnings, 6 watches
- April 9 tornado event page
- April 18-19, 2015
- May 6, 2015
- Covered Lincoln, KS to Throckmorton, TX
- 59 reports, 102 warnings, 5 watches
- May 6 tornado event page
- May 9-10, 2015
- May 16, 2015
- Long-lasting tornado passed through Elmer, Oklahoma to almost Tipton, Oklahoma
- Moved from Briscoe, TX to Boone, IA
- 50 reports, 68 warnings, 9 watches
- May 16 tornado event page
- May 19, 2015
- Hit Lee, TX all the way to Carter, OK
- 29 reports, 42 warnings, 3 watches
- May 19 tornado event page
- May 25, 2015
- Passed from Mitchell, TX to Jefferson, LA
- There was major flooding in the area.
- 28 reports, 87 warnings, 7 watches
- May 25 tornado event page
There have also been smaller outbreaks, as recorded by NOAA. These rank higher because at least 25 tornadoes were reported within a 12-hour time frame, therefore a system moved from one part of the United States through a predictable, trackable path.
Additional Articles on Tornadoes
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