Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- A tornado is a violent atmospheric storm with strong rotating winds that form a funnel shape.
- Tornadoes can be 5 to 10 miles tall (8-16 km) and have wind speeds over 200 mph (322 kph).
- They most commonly form from supercell thunderstorms with the right combination of moist, humid air and wind shear.
- Different types of tornadoes include landspouts, waterspouts, rope tornadoes, cone tornadoes, wedge tornadoes, and multi-vortex tornadoes.
- Tornado strength is determined by wind speeds and damage caused, using the Enhanced Fujita Scale with ratings from F0 to F5.
Tornadoes are powerful types of storms that can occur almost anywhere when conditions are right. Have you ever wondered where tornadoes come from and how they form?
Not all tornadoes are the same, each differing in size and strength. Find out more about these monstrous swirling storms in this complete guide on tornadoes!
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What Is a Tornado?
A tornado is a violent atmospheric storm made of strong winds. Columns of air rotate down to the ground from a thunderstorm, forming a funnel shape.
Collections of debris, dust, and water allow us to see the rotating winds of a tornado.
A tornado is made up of released energy in thunderstorms, creating powerful winds. There are several different types of tornadoes that have their own characteristics. Some tornadoes can be minor, while others can cause hefty damage.
Why Is It Called a Tornado?
The word tornado originates from the Latin word tonare. This means “to thunder.” Tronada is the Spanish word meaning thunderstorm. Tornado likely formed from a combination of tonare and tronada. It may have also been combined with tornar, which means “to turn” in Spanish.
Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes aren’t given names when they occur. Tropical storms and hurricanes are the only storm-type weather events that are given names.
What Do Tornadoes Look Like?
Tornadoes can look different depending on what type of tornado it is. Tornadoes are accompanied by dark storm clouds. These clouds form a swirling funnel that drops down.
The larger end of the funnel is in the thunderstorm cloud. The funnel usually gets skinnier towards the end that touches the ground. The part of the tornado touching the ground can be really skinny or almost as wide as the top.
How Tall are Tornadoes?
Tornadoes can be anywhere around 5 to 10 miles (8-16 km) tall. This range could depend on the distance between the ground and the thunderstorm cloud.
The funnel of a tornado can range in size. Some may be a few hundred meters wide, while others are much larger. The tip that touches the ground is usually skinnier than the top. But some tips of tornadoes can be over a mile wide.
How Fast Do Tornadoes Move?
There are two different speeds to consider when discussing how fast a tornado is moving.
The speed of a tornado can be measured by how fast it’s moving along its path. Speed can also be determined by how fast the rotating winds of a tornado are moving.
When referring to how fast a tornado moves in its path, it can reach up to 60 mph (97 kph) or more. A tornado can also move very slowly to the point where it may not even look like it’s moving.
Wind speeds in a tornado can reach over 200 mph (322 kph). Tornado strength is determined by wind speeds and damage caused to anything in its general path.
Strong tornadoes that do the most damage typically have wind speeds over 200 mph (322 kph). Weaker tornadoes can have wind speeds under 80 mph (129 kph).
How Long Do Tornadoes Last?
Tornadoes can be very short-lived or have longer ground time. Most don’t last more than 20 minutes, with the average range being 5 to 10 minutes.
Some can last more than an hour long if it has the strength and resources to do so. However, these strong tornadoes are rare.
How Much Damage Can a Tornado Do?
Tornadoes have different strength ratings depending on how much damage it causes. A tornado’s wind speed can be estimated by assessing the damage.
Tornadoes can rip up houses, trees, and anything in their path. They can cause immense damage if it builds up enough speed and wind power.
Some tornadoes may last longer than others. Tornadoes that aren’t as strong and don’t last long typically cause less damage. The National Weather Service uses the Enhanced Fujita Scale to assess tornado strength.
The rating system includes damage indicators. It allow experts to determine the wind speed rating of a tornado. Damage indicators include different types of infrastructure and trees. Experts will call tornadoes by their “F Number.” The F Number goes from 0 to 5, with 5 being the strongest.
The rating system measures how fast a tornado travels and wind gust speeds.
An F5 tornado, for example, has wind speeds between 260 and 318 mph (418 and 311 kph). F5 tornadoes can be extremely destructive. They have the ability to cause millions to billions of dollars in damage. They’re able to destroy concrete buildings and other solid infrastructure.
Weak tornadoes usually can’t damage buildings made of stronger materials. They can still cause damage to trees and homes.
Tornadoes can also cause indirect damage. Objects and debris picked up by strong tornadoes can be thrown elsewhere and damage other things in the process.
There are a few elements that go into what causes a tornado. Conditions like thunderstorms, warm and moist air, and air instability are the main ingredients that cause tornadoes.
In most cases, tornadoes cannot form without a thunderstorm. So the initial cause of a tornado is a thunderstorm with the right conditions to create a funnel cloud and tornado. Most thunderstorms don’t cause tornadoes, but it’s possible if all the components are there to make one.
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How Do Tornadoes Form?
Scientists are still studying how tornadoes form to better understand them. There are a few different ways a tornado can form. In almost all tornado events, a thunderstorm is needed for a tornado to form.
There are two types of thunderstorms that form tornadoes. These include supercell and non-supercell thunderstorms. The type of thunderstorm also determines what kind of tornado could form.
Tornadoes form most often from supercell thunderstorms. A combination of moist, humid air that’s unstable with differing wind directions can create a tornado.
Winds lower to the ground can be moving in one direction. Meanwhile, winds higher up move in a different direction. This process is called wind shear.
The movement of cold air falling downward and humid air rising creates unstable air movement that begins to spin. The rising of the humid, moist, and rotating air is known as an updraft.
The direction of the air starts out by moving horizontally in the thunderstorm cloud. But when it begins moving vertically, it can create a funnel cloud. It’s not considered a tornado until it touches down on the ground. Otherwise, it stays a funnel cloud.
How Do You Spot a Tornado Before It Starts?
There are a few things you can look for to identify tornadoes before they begin. Some things you can look at that may lead to tornado formation include:
- Dark greenish sky color
- Isolated rotation in a thunderstorm cloud
- A funnel cloud forming
- Hearing a loud train-like sound
- Falling debris combined with some of the identifiers mentioned above
A funnel cloud forming is one of the clearest signs that a tornado is trying to appear. Even if you spot a funnel cloud, this doesn’t guarantee it will touch the ground, and a tornado will occur.
Some thunderstorm clouds get a dark greenish color before producing a tornado. However, strong thunderstorms may have this color as well. A fast-swirling thunderstorm cloud can signify that a funnel cloud is about to form.
The rapid rotation of air causes tornadoes to make sounds. Usually, it sounds like a loud train horn. It can also sound like a deep rumbling noise. The winds can also make other sounds.
If you hear the sound of a tornado and see a dark greenish sky with debris falling down, a tornado might be in the area.
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What Stops a Tornado?
The only thing that can stop a tornado is itself. Just as a tornado needs energy and resources to occur, it also needs them to maintain itself.
Tornadoes can happen very fast, but they can’t be stopped by a building, even if it’s super tall or made of concrete. As less air movement occurs, tornadoes begin to slow down. The continuous movement of humid air up and cold air down can cause tornadoes to go on for longer periods.
When a tornado loses its momentum, the tip will no longer be on the ground. Rotating air currents stabilize, and the tornado eventually disappears.
Types of Tornadoes
Each type of tornado falls under the supercell and non-supercell thunderstorm categories. Two types of non-supercell tornadoes include landspouts and waterspouts.
Other types of tornadoes form from a supercell thunderstorm, such as:
- Rope tornadoes
- Cone tornadoes
- Wedge tornadoes
- Multi-vortex tornadoes
Landspouts and waterspouts are weaker tornadoes. They usually don’t last as long as the others.
Landspouts are very narrow tornadoes that have a rope-shaped funnel. These tornadoes can form when the thunderstorm cloud it’s forming from hasn’t fully developed yet. This causes it to get spinning momentum from the ground up rather than from the updraft at the top.
Waterspouts have very similar characteristics to landspouts. The one major difference is waterspouts occur over water.
Rope tornadoes look like ropes. They’re very thin and often have a very serpentine-like pattern. They can remain this way from the time they form until they disappear. Sometimes these tornadoes form their rope shape toward the end of their life.
A cone tornado has the classic tornado look. Its tip is thinner than the top of the tornado, forming a cone shape. These tornadoes can get pretty big, and if they do, they can cause much damage.
Wedge tornadoes are extremely wide tornadoes. They typically look like a large wall of dark clouds. These types of tornadoes may have a wider tip touching the ground than the top of the tornado.
Although they’re larger than other tornadoes, this doesn’t mean they’re stronger.
A multi-vortex tornado occurs when a main tornado is accompanied by another tornado. The second tornado may be similar or much smaller than the main tornado. This type of tornado event could include more than two tornadoes, but it’s extremely rare.
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Tornadoes can be strong, disastrous event. There are some tornado events that break historical records for their power, speed, and damage caused.
One of the deadliest tornadoes was the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. This tornado event occurred across three different states and caused damage to 13 counties. It went through the southern portions of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925.
The Tri-State Tornado traveled 219 miles and had a width of almost one mile (1.6 km). It was graded as an F5 on the Fujita Scale. It traveled slightly over 60 mph (96.5 kph) and had wind speeds exceeding 300 mph (483 kph).
Great Plains Tornado Outbreak of 1999
Multi-vortex tornadoes occurred on May 3, 1999 in Oklahoma and Kansas. There were 74 tornadoes reported in the states within a 24-hour period.
The strongest tornado in the event reached record-breaking wind speeds over 300 mph (483 kph). It was rated as an F5 tornado.
Over 8,000 homes were damaged, and more than 800 people were injured, with 46 deaths.
March 2, 2012, Tornado Outbreak
On March 2, 2012, a devastating tornado outbreak occurred in 11 different states. There were 81 tornadoes present during this event, 18 of which were in Kentucky alone.
The tornado gained enough power and speed to be graded as an EF-4, the second-highest tornado ranking. Hail was also present from severe thunderstorms surrounding the affected areas.
There were more than 270 tornado warnings issued, and the event caused over $1.5 billion in damages. 41 people died as a result of the disastrous event.
Cyclone vs. Tornado: What’s the Difference?
Tornadoes are often referred to as cyclones, but they are different types of weather events. Tornadoes are considered small-scale cyclonic events.
Cyclones are large-scale rotating circulations in low atmospheric pressure and severe weather.
Winds circulate around low pressure during a cyclone. Tornadoes do the same, but they’re much smaller. Cyclones are more closely associated with hurricanes.
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Tornado vs. Hurricane: What’s the Difference?
A hurricane is a type of tropical storm that forms over the ocean. They’re often referred to as tropical cyclones. These weather events usually start over tropical or subtropical waters, where they build up power and wind speeds.
The maximum wind speed for a tropical storm to be classified as a hurricane is 74 mph (119 kph). When they hit land, they begin to lose power.
Hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and typhoons are the same things, but they’re referred to differently depending on where you are.
Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that occur in the North Atlantic and central and eastern North Pacific. It’s referred to as a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific. Areas around the Indian Ocean and South Pacific call them tropical cyclones.
The only tornadoes that form over water are waterspouts. These are considered small-scale storms. Tornadoes aren’t a type of tropical storm and are smaller weather events. This is what separates them from hurricanes.
Tornado Myths & Misconceptions
Tornadoes Don’t Form in Mountains – False
It’s a common misconception that tornadoes only form on flat land. However, they can occur in the mountains; it’s just less common.
What matters most for tornado formation is the weather conditions. This includes unstable air conditions and humidity. These conditions are common in the Great Plains, and it just so happens that the land there is flat.
Opening Windows Can Equalize the Pressure of a Tornado – False
Opening the windows in your house to try and equalize the pressure of an incoming tornado is a myth. It can actually be more damaging to your home if you open the windows during a tornado.
Houses don’t explode due to low pressure from a tornado. The strength of winds and flying debris can shatter windows, but they’re not exploding.
Big Tornadoes Are Stronger – Not Always!
Tornadoes can look massive but have weaker winds. The size of a tornado can be deceiving because its size doesn’t equal its strength.
Small rope tornadoes can still be destructive if they possess strong winds. A tornado’s strength can only be determined after its wind speeds and the amount of damage caused is assessed.
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👉🏼 Tornadoes Occur Most in Spring and Summer
Tornadoes can occur any time of the year under the right conditions. However, they mostly occur during the spring and summer. This is because tornadoes need moisture and warm air to form.
👉🏼 You’re Most Likely to See a Tornado in the Afternoon or Evening
Air becomes more unstable in the late afternoon and evening. Warm air starts to mix with colder air as temperatures begin to drop. This causes warm air to rise quickly.
As a result, tornadoes are more likely to occur during these changes in air temperature and movement.
👉🏼 Tornadoes Don’t Usually Make Deep Trenches
You may have seen movies where tornadoes plow through the ground, creating trenches. Although it’s possible and has happened before, it’s not a common occurrence.
Can you outrun a tornado?
No, you shouldn’t try to outrun a tornado. It’s very dangerous to be out in the open or in a vehicle during a tornado.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends finding the nearest shelter. If shelter isn’t nearby, you can seek shelter in a low-lying ditch and cover your head and neck.
Can you breathe inside a tornado?
Yes, you can breathe inside a tornado, but it’s difficult. Breathing in a tornado is like trying to breathe at really high altitudes. The air is less dense. This is why it’s hard to breathe if you go hiking at higher altitudes than you’re used to.
What to do if a tornado picks you up?
If you’re picked up by a tornado while in your home, it’s best to brace yourself and try to cover your head. A tornado can carry people and other things and throw them back out. You’ll want to prepare yourself for the impact if this happens.
How do I prevent being picked up by a tornado?
To prevent being picked up by a tornado, you’ll want to find a small room with little furniture, windows, or debris. Basements are recommended because they’re underground, and they’ll protect you if your house gets picked up. A cellar is also a good place to hide.
Which country has the most tornadoes?
While tornadoes can occur almost anywhere, the United States has the most tornadoes annually on average. The US usually experiences an average of about 1,200 tornadoes every year.
Why does it get quiet before a tornado?
Have you ever heard the saying “the calm before the storm”? This can happen when there’s less air movement, or wind, in the area. The air is rising as it’s being drawn in by the storm cell.
What’s the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning?
A tornado watch means that weather conditions in a specific area make it highly likely that a tornado could possibly form.
A tornado warning means that a Doppler weather radar has detected a thunderstorm that can produce a tornado in the area. It could also mean that a tornado has already formed and been identified.