Tornado hits villageTornadoes are scary, there’s no doubt about it. But if you learn how they form and what they’re all about, you can be better prepared if you and your family go through one.

On This Page

  1. Tornado Definition
  2. What Do Tornadoes Look Like?
  3. How Do They Form?
  4. When & Where Tornadoes Happen
  5. History of the Worst Tornadoes
  6. Other Tornado Facts
  7. Tornado Safety for Kids
  8. Tornado Terminology
  9. Tornado Learning Activities for Kids

What Is A Tornado?

A tornado is a whirling, destructive mass of wind. If you’ve ever seen little whirlwinds of air as a car speeds by, or if the wind blows up swirling little “dust devils”, then you’ve seen a small-scale version of something similar to a tornado.

“Similar” doesn’t mean “alike”, though. Whirlwinds are very small and very weak compared to even the tiniest tornado, and they rarely cause injury or damage. Tornadoes can get very large and very strong. The wind can go as fast as 300 miles per hour and they do a lot of damage. While a whirlwind throws small rocks and sticks around, a tornado throws cars and trees!

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What Do Tornadoes Look Like?

A tornado usually looks like a big, greenish-grey column of twisting air, like a thunder cloud being stretched downward. Some people think they look like giant elephant trunks. As long as the air is swirling around up in the sky, it’s not quite a tornado — it’s called a “funnel”. When the funnel touches the ground, then it’s a tornado!

  • When you can see a tornado, it might look like a cone, very wide at the top and very narrow at the bottom. This is the way most tornadoes look.
  • Some tornadoes look long and thin, like a rope. Because these “ropes” are narrow, they usually don’t cause as much damage as a regular tornado. They can still be dangerous, though.
  • Sometimes you might see one large tornado with a number of smaller ones alongside it. These are called “satellite tornadoes”. The satellite tornadoes can cause a lot of damage on their own.
  • Sometimes they don’t look like anything. The only way you know it is there is because you can see all the stuff it picked up being thrown around in circles. Cars, trees, even parts of houses can be seen when a tornado “touches down”.

If you hear a tornado warning, don’t worry if you can’t see it or not. Just follow the instructions you’re given to help keep yourself safe.

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How Do Tornadoes Form?

Scientists do not know all of the factors that come together to form a tornado, but they have learned quite a bit over the years. Tornadoes usually come from thunderstorms. If warm, moist air from a place like the Gulf of Mexico meets cold, dry air from a place like Canada, the air develops “instability”. They meet horizontally, but as the warm air rises and the cool air falls, the different wind directions begin to push it into a vertical column of air. This column of air can be from 2 to 6 miles wide. The middle part moves faster than the outer parts, however, and here is where tornadoes are born.

Have you ever watched a figure skater spinning in place? While her arms are out, she spins at one speed. When she tucks her arms in, however, she spins faster. The winds in a tornado work the same way. As the air “tucks in” close to the center, the column picks up speed. As the warm air rises, it cools. Sometimes it cools quite rapidly. This causes it to fall as more warm air rushes up to take its place. The air warms as it falls and the cycle continues.

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When and Where Do Tornadoes Happen the Most?

Tornadoes can happen any time and anyplace. In the United States, they tend to happen most frequently along a part of the country known as “Tornado Alley”. Tornado Alley is made up of:

  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana

In the southern states tornadoes are more likely to happen in March, April, and May. Some southern states also see it happen again in the fall. In the northern states, summer is the time for tornadoes.

Also, tornadoes are more likely to happen between 3PM and 9PM. This is when the warmer air of the day is changing places with the cooler air of the night. However, tornadoes can’t tell time and can happen at any hour!

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Where Have the Worst Tornadoes Happened?

The three worst tornadoes in the history of our planet happened in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a small country just to the east of India. The three worst tornadoes ever are:

  • 1996 – The third worst tornado ever happened on May 13, 1996. It claimed about 700 people and left about 30,000 homes demolished.
  • 1969 – When Bangladesh was still called East Pakistan, two tornadoes touched down on April 14, 1969, causing the second worst tornado day ever. Together they killed about 883 people and left around 4,000 wounded.
  • 1989 – On April 26, 1989, the worst tornado in the history of the world struck Bangladesh. In only minutes 1,300 people lost their lives, 12,000 were left injured, the towns of Daulatpur and Salturia were completely destroyed, and 80,000 people were left homeless.

The three worst tornadoes in the United States are:

  • 1925 – On March 18, 1925, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana (known as the “Tri-State Area”) were hit by a tornado that claimed an estimated 695 lives.
  • 1840 – May 6, 1840 saw a tornado take the lives of an estimated 317 people in Natchez, Mississippi.
  • 1896 – On May 27, 1896, St. Louis, Missouri lost an estimated 255 people to a tornado.

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Other Tornado Facts

How many tornadoes happen in the US each year?

The United States sees about 1,200 tornadoes per year. Contrary to what some people think, the number of tornadoes is not increasing. What’s increasing is our ability to detect and record them.

How many people are killed each year by tornadoes?

About 60 people each year are killed by flying or falling debris from a tornado. This is why it’s important to listen to all safety instructions and follow them.

How do they measure tornadoes?

Tornadoes are measured on the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EFS). This rates tornadoes on a scale of 0 to 5 based on how much damage they’ve caused:

  • EF0 – Winds at 65 to 85 mph, minor to no damage. Roof tiles missing, smaller trees uprooted, etc.
  • EF1 – Winds at 86 to 110 mph, moderate damage. Stripped roofs, mobile homes overturned, windows and other glass broken, outside doors lost, etc.
  • EF2 – Winds at 111 to 135mph, considerable damage. Roofs torn off, large trees uprooted, cars blown around, etc.
  • EF3 – Winds at 136 to 165 mph, severe damage. Entire stories of even well-constructed homes destroyed, severe damage to large buildings like shopping malls, trains blown off of the tracks, etc.
  • EF4 – Winds at 166 to 200 mph, extreme damage. Whole houses leveled, cars and other large objects thrown around like toys, etc.
  • EF5 – Winds greater than 200 mph, total destruction. Even strongly built houses are swept away, cars and other heavy objects can be flung as far as a mile away, tall buildings may collapse, etc.

What’s the difference between a tornado “watch” and a tornado “warning”?

A tornado watch is announced when weather conditions are right for a tornado to form. One hasn’t formed yet, but you need to be aware of approaching storms. A tornado watch lets you know to keep your eyes on the skies.

A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted and is likely headed your way. You need to get to safety immediately!

How far do tornadoes travel?

Most tornadoes are only on the ground for about 10 to 20 minutes and travel for about 5 miles. However, the 1925 Tri-State tornado was on the ground for over 7 hours and traveled a record-breaking 219 miles!

What’s a funnel cloud?

A funnel cloud is what you see when the rotating wind goes from horizontal to vertical. It starts pulling moisture from the thunder clouds down kind of like when you drain the water from a sink. It takes the shape of a funnel, which is where it gets its name.

What’s a supercell?

Supercells are thunderstorms that have a large, rotating mass of air in the middle. They are not tornadoes by themselves, but they do produce tornadoes. The rotating part of a supercell, called a “mesocyclone”, can be as tall as 50,000 feet and as wide as 10 miles.

How fast does the wind in a tornado move?

The wind speed of a tornado is a measurement of how fast the wind is going by. A typical tornado has wind speeds of less than 110 mph. The strongest recorded tornado had a wind speed of 318 mph, the highest wind speeds ever recorded anywhere on the planet. It happened when a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburbs on May 3, 1999.

Do tornadoes go clockwise or counterclockwise?

In the northern hemisphere tornadoes always rotate counterclockwise. In the southern hemisphere they go clockwise. This is due to what’s called the “Coriolis Effect”. Because the planet is spinning, things like tornadoes are spun clockwise or counterclockwise depending on whether they’re on the upper or lower half of the planet.

Can a tornado really put a piece of straw through a tree?

Not exactly. A tornado can twist a tree and cause cracks to open up and form gaps. If the piece of straw hits the tree just right, it can go into the crack and get stuck. When the tree un-twists, it closes up around the piece of straw and makes it look like the straw got embedded.

Can you survive getting picked up by a tornado?

While it’s possible, it’s not likely. Yes, people, animals, and buildings have been picked up and set back down in some of the strangest places, but it’s a very rare thing to have happen. Even if you survive the actual “picking up” part, the debris flying around in the wind is incredibly dangerous. Finally, the tornado may not set you down very gently. It’s not the sort of thing to take chances with!

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Tornado Safety Tips For Kids

Knowing what to do in case of an emergency is the best way to stay safe and alive. It’s okay to be scared when a tornado is coming, but if you panic you might wind up doing something dangerous. Know these following things, practice them, and you can keep yourself safe through the storm:

  • Listen to the reports – If a storm is coming, watch the weather reports on TV or the internet or listen to the radio. (A weather radio is perfect for this.) They will tell you if a tornado watch is in effect and if a tornado watch has become a tornado warning. Staying aware is a big part of staying safe.
  • Have a disaster kit ready – A disaster kit should have the things you will need to survive after a disaster. These are things like flashlights, whistles (to signal to rescuers and family members), rain gear, heavy shoes (to keep from getting hurt walking around debris), and other things that your parents or tornado experts can help you assemble. Keep it in a duffel bag or backpack and make sure you can get to it quickly and carry it easily.
  • If you are inside – Walk, don’t run, to an inside room without windows, such as a closet or bathroom, and cover yourself with blankets or anything that can protect you. Your home may already have a “safe room” built into it. Learn where it is and memorize how to get there quickly even when the power has gone out. Your family may have drills to make sure everybody knows how to get there quickly. Pay attention during these drills even if you think they’re boring, because they can keep you alive. Also be sure that your disaster kit is ready to go in an easy-to-reach area. No tornado is going to wait for you to dig it out of the back of your closet and get it packed!
  • If you are outside – You can’t outrun a tornado. Move quickly but calmly to the nearest building and get to an interior room without windows. Crouch low and protect your head. If you aren’t near a building, find a ditch or other area lower than the land around it and lie as flat as you can, covering your head. Stay there until the storm has passed.
  • If you are at school – Listen to your teacher’s instructions and stay calm. If another student starts to panic, staying calm can help them settle down if they see nobody else is panicking.
  • After the storm – Stay with your family (or your class if you are at school). Don’t go wandering off no matter how badly you may want to go home. Don’t go near downed power lines and avoid broken glass. If you find you are by yourself, signal for help. Keeping a whistle on you is a good idea.  By signaling, firemen, policemen, or other rescuers can find you more easily. For your own safety, do not go off alone with anybody you don’t know.

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Tornado Terms to Know

People who study tornadoes sometimes seem to have their own language when talking about them. Here are some words and their definitions just so you know what they’re talking about:

  • Tornado watch – An alert about weather conditions in which tornadoes might form.
  • Tornado warning – An alert that a tornado has been spotted whether on radar or by somebody actually seeing it.
  • Funnel cloud – A rotating column of air that comes down from a cloud but doesn’t touch the ground.
  • Mesocyclone – A column of stormy winds that can form between the top and bottom of a storm cloud. It’s from these that most tornadoes form.
  • Supercell – A powerful storm that can produce mesocyclones.
  • SKYWARN – A network of volunteer storm-spotters. Combined with radar, they help give scientists actual on-the-ground information on approaching storms.
  • Fujita Scale – The ratings by which tornadoes are measured based on the damage they cause.
  • Updraft – Warm air that is rushing upwards as cool air falls.
  • Downdraft – Cool air that is rushing downwards as warm air rises.
  • Waterspout – A tornado that has formed over water.
  • Landspout – A kind of tornado that forms without a supercell or mescocyclone. They look like a waterspout on land and are normally weak and short-lived.
  • Gustnado – A tornado-like column of air that has formed without tornado conditions being present. Gustnadoes are more like whirlwinds than tornadoes.
  • Satellite tornadoes – Smaller tornadoes often formed by larger tornadoes. They can go off on their own and cause significant damage.
  • Storm chasing – Traveling along with a tornado or other severe weather to record it first hand. This requires special training and knowledge and should not be done just for fun!
  • Storm shelter/cellar – An underground bunker that is your best shelter from a tornado.
  • Vortex – Air or liquid that is whirling around, such as the air in a tornado.

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Tornado Activities for Kids

Even though studying tornadoes is dangerous and unpredictable, there are ways that you can study them safely at home. The following experiments demonstrate how warm air and cool air can be very powerful when they mix, and how vortices (more than one vortex) form.

Egg In a Bottle

This experiment shows just how much pressure even a little warm and cool air can create.

You need:

  • A glass bottle with a long, narrow neck
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • Matches

Instructions:

  1. Put the bottle on a table.
  2. Peel the egg.
  3. Light a match and drop it into the bottle. Do this for about 3 or 4 matches.
  4. While the matches are burning, quickly place the egg over the bottle’s opening.

What happened?

The lit matches warm the air in the bottle. It has trouble getting out due to the narrow neck. When you put the egg on the opening, some warm air is able to escape around the egg, pulling cooler air into the bottle. The cooler air takes up less room than the warm air. This causes a suction to form that pulls the egg into the bottle.

To get the egg out of the bottle, tilt the bottle and blow air into it. Be careful, though, because the egg will want to shoot out!

Tornado In A Jar

This experiment lets you view a temporary mini-tornado safely contained in a mayonnaise jar.

You need:

  • A mayonnaise jar or similar clear container with a lid
  • Clear liquid soap
  • Vinegar
  • Water

Instructions:

  1. Fill the jar about ¾ full of water.
  2. Add a teaspoon of liquid soap into the jar.
  3. Add a teaspoon of vinegar into the jar.
  4. Tighten the lid and shake the jar. You want a really good mixture of the liquids.
  5. Swirl the jar in circles.

What happened?

The swirling motion produces a small vortex. If you add food coloring and glitter to your liquid mixture, you can see how the vortex would throw debris around if it was a real tornado!

Tornado Maker

This experiment also demonstrates a vortex, but it also shows how the speed increases as the vortex gets narrower.

You need:

  • 2 plastic 2-liter soda bottles (emptied and cleaned)
  • Water
  • Duct tape

Instructions:

  1. Fill one of the bottles 2/3 with water.
  2. Using the duct tape, tape the bottle openings together. Make sure it’s a good, tight seal. You don’t want any water getting out!
  3. Turn the bottles so that the one with water in it is on top.
  4. Swirl the bottle in a circular motion.

What happened?

The swirling motion produces a vortex as water rushes into the empty bottle below it. You can add a little colored lamp oil after you put the water in the first bottle. This will give your contained tornado a bright color that will let you see how the tornado moves faster as the vortex gets narrower.

Now you know about tornadoes and how they work. If you find yourself in the path of a tornado, you also know how to keep yourself safe!

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