Update your knowledge of tornadoes and what they can do to our environment.
What is a tornado?
What is the difference between a funnel and a tornado?
What causes tornadoes?
Where is Tornado Alley?
What is the Fujita Scale?
How many tornadoes reach “violent” status?
When do tornadoes occur?
What is the peak time of day for tornadoes?
What shapes can tornadoes take
?
What are the strongest winds in a tornado?
What are suction vortices?
Are there other tornado-like vortices in the atmosphere?

Do rivers protect you from tornadoes?
Where do tornadoes form with respect to the parent storm cell?
What is a wall cloud?
What are tornado chasers?
Do hurricanes spawn tornadoes?
What are the tornado death tolls for the United States?
What was the single deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak?
What were the deadliest years for tornadoes in the U.S.?
What is the longest and shortest tornado paths on record?
What was the biggest recorded tornado outbreak ever?
What are some other famous tornado outbreaks?
What are your chances of being struck by a tornado?
What is a waterspout?
What is a dust devil?
What are some unusually strong dust devils?
What state is Number 1 in tornadoes?
Is it possible to survive a tornado?
Who are most at risk in tornadoes?
What can you do before a tornado to improve your survival odds?
What should you do if a tornado threatens?
Is a train a safe place to be during a tornado?
What are the signs of an imminent tornado?


Should you open windows or doors during tornado warnings?
Are tornadoes unique to the United States?
What is the first known movie record of a tornado?
What tornado almost changed American pop culture?
Has anyone even seen the inside of a tornado?
How many tornadoes actually kill people?
Do cows fly in tornadoes?
Do tornadoes have "eyes”?
Do cities attract tornadoes?
What is the largest death toll from a tornado?
What is the record for July tornadoes?
Are tornadoes attracted to trailer home parks?
Can you have a tornado when the sun is shining?
Is the number of tornadoes increasing?
Are tornado fatalities increasing?
What day is least likely to see a tornado in the U.S.?
Is there double jeopardy in tornado strikes?
Why do the residents of Codell, Kansas get nervous every May 20th?
Is the southwest corner of the basement the safest?
How are tornadoes detected?
Are there high tornado frequencies outside of tornado alley?
Are there seasonal patterns to tornadoes?
Can tornadoes strike cities in the northern U.S.?
What is the pressure inside a tornado vortex?
What is a gustnado?
What is a normal tornado season?
What was the worst tornado disaster in the world?
What is the average path length of a tornado?
Can tornadoes rotate the "wrong way?"

What do tornadoes sound like?
Contestants for the short distance tornado toss
What debris has been lofted by tornado funnels?
How far can tornadoes carry debris?

What is a tornado?
The technical definition of a tornado is a violently rotating column in contact with the ground that is usually pendant from a parent cumulonimbus cloud. The vortex is usually, but not always, made visibly by a condensation funnel cloud and/or a drbris cloud. On a local scale it is the most destructive of all meteorological phenomena. Many tornadoes only last for a few minutes and are on the ground for a few miles. But others can persist for hours, travel more than a hundred miles, and have paths a mile wide. The word tornado may have originated with a merging of the Latin tornare, which means to turn, and the Spanish tronada (thunderstorm).

What is the difference between a funnel and a tornado?
Both are violently whirling columns of air spawned by thunderstorms, but in most usages of the word, the funnel refers to a vortex which is still aloft whereas a tornado has descended to the surface. If the condensation funnel has dropped more than half way from the cloud base to the surface, a funnel is generally called a tornado because by this time damaging winds are likely to be occurring on the ground. Sometimes the term funnel refers to the visible portion of the vortex whether the or not the circulation has reached the surface. The funnel can be made visible by either condensation (the funnel cloud) or debris or both.   GO TO TOP

What causes tornadoes?

Conservation of angular momentum. Everyone has seen ice skaters who are spinning while extending their arms and as soon as they tuck their arms in close to the body, the rate of spin increases dramatically. Somewhat the same thing happens in the atmosphere. An air mass always has a certain amount of “spin” (technically called vorticity). As that air is converged into the strong updraft of an intense thunderstorm, the rate of spin increases, much like that of the skater. But while the basic principle is recognized, the meteorological mechanisms are still poorly understood. Do tornadoes form deep within the cloud and extend downward? Or does the intense rotation form beneath the cloud and extend upwards. Or both? A major research program was held during 1995 called VORTEX (verifying the origins of rotation in tornadoes experiment) in which hundreds of meteorologists drove around, flew near, electronically probed and photographed tornadic thunderstorms from every conceivable angle. But unlike the movie “Twister” where the “answer” was immediately “obvious,” it will take years of data analysis to fully understand just what puts the twist in the twister.

Where is Tornado Alley?
A broad belt of the interior U.S. which extends from Texas northwards, has more tornadoes than any place in the world. This is often called tornado alley, although its exact geographic boundaries are ill-defined. Tornadoes are not confined to this region, however. Tornadoes have been observed in every state.
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What is the Fujita Scale?
Just as there is a "Richter Scale” to gauge earthquake intensities, the "Fujita Tornado Scale," based upon damage, classifies twisters into six categories of wind speed (FO through F5), ranging from 40 to 300+ mph estimated wind speed. Placing sensors inside an F5 tornado became the quest of the meteorologists in the movie “Twister.” The Fujita scale was devised by Prof. T. Theodore Fujita (everyone calls him Ted) of the University of Chicago. He is also called “Mr. Tornado” because he conducted much of the pioneering work on tornadoes which serves as the basis of today’s rapidly improving understanding of severe storms. Since no one has ever been able to obtain wind measurements inside a tornado (except for some recent Doppler radar studies), Prof. Fujita, along with Allen Pearson, then the Director of the National Severe Storm Forecasting Center, devised a way to convert the degree and type of damage caused by a tornado into an estimate of the wind speeds inside the funnel. Correctly using the “F” scale requires a lot of skill, but it is still the best tool available today. Almost all tornadoes for the last several decades have been classified according to the “F” rating.

The Fujita tornado intensity scale in terms of the peak wind speeds within the funnel:

F0 (light damage): 40-72 mph
F1 (moderate damage): 73-112 mph
F2 (considerable damage): 113-157 mph
F3 (severe damage): 158-206 mph
F4 (devastating damage): 207-260 mph
F5 (incredible damage): 261-318 mph

No tornado is believed to have exceeded F5, which itself is reached only a few times per year in the 700-800 annual US tornadoes. The 3 May 1999 tornado in the Oklahoma City area was observed by a portable Doppler which indicated winds at the very end of the F5 scale, the strongest yet measured.

Note: In 2007, an enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale was introduced. Details can be found on the web site of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center:

www.spc.noaa.gov/efscale

How many tornadoes reach “violent” status?
Tornadoes of F4 or F5 on the Fujita scale are classified as violent tornadoes. Only 2% of U.S. tornadoes reach “violent” intensity, yet those few result in 70% of all tornado deaths. Their winds exceed 200 mph and they can stay on the ground for an hour or more.The strongest tornado wind speeds are estimated to be in the 260-318 mph class. This corresponds to a ranking of F5, the highest on the Fujita tornado scale. During the last decade, less than a dozen twisters were estimated to reach this kinetic milestone. GO TO TOP


When do tornadoes occur?

Whenever they want to. There is no real tornado season since they occur in the U.S. during any month of the year, though the winter months see them retreat to the far south and southwestern part of the country. April is sometimes called the "cruelest month". And it is. As far as U.S. tornado deaths are concerned, it has the highest toll. But numerically the most tornadoes occur in May, although they tend to be somewhat less violent and therefore less deadly. While the tornado “season” is generally considered to be March through August, twisters can occur whenever atmospheric conditions are “right.”

The tornado season never really ends, it just slows down, and occasionally springs back to life during what should be winter. On December 9, 1991, a tornado smashed through McLean County, IL. About 20 empty railroad cars were blown off the tracks near Bloomington. A camper was picked up, tossed 100 feet and hurled into a tree. Fortunately the camping season had ended.

In the U.S., April has the most tornado fatalities. May has the most tornado touch downs. July has the most lightning strikes. And September the most hurricanes. So, that leaves June and August for vacations?

What is the peak time of day for tornadoes?
Tornadoes are creatures of the late afternoon, when most thunderstorms are in progress. Over 40% of U.S. twisters are reported between 2 and 6 PM. But they can and do strike at any hour if conditions are right. Nighttime tornadoes tend to be rather common along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the hour of the day making them even more deadly because they are obviously harder to see, and most people are sleeping and unaware of warnings (unless they have a NOAA Weather Radio with Tone Alert). Early morning tornadoes are unusual by not impossible. The only tornado directly witnessed by the author whizzed past his front door at 8:15 on a Saturday morning while he was out picking up the newspaper. GO TO TOP

What shapes can tornadoes take?
Most people have a mental image of a tornado...rather like an elephant's trunk ...yet twisters come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes they appear as roiling billows of smoke, other times a twisting rope, or a barely visible swirl of dust. Some extremely violent ones appear as several "snake like" vortices whirling around a common center. Some especially large funnels, which can be a mile wide, are sometimes called wedges. A tornado often goes through a life cycle starting as a classic funnel shape, then broadening and widening in its mature stage, sometimes almost looking like billows of smoke on the ground. Then it enters the dissipating stage where it becomes thinner, long and often very distorted. This is called the rope stage. But even when a tornado is “roping out” it can still pack a pretty good wallop at the ground.

What are the strongest winds in a tornado?
How high are the strongest winds in a tornado? Once they were thought to be over 500 mph, perhaps even supersonic. But research on damage patterns, as well as recent measurements made by portable Doppler radars suggest the highest winds are in the 280-320 mph range. Still a pretty fair breeze. The strongest wind speeds in a tornado vortex are thought to occur about 300 feet above the ground. It is estimated that fully 90% of all tornadoes fail to register winds above 113 mph. GO TO TOP

What are suction vortices?
The ability of a passing tornado to destroy a building yet leave something only a few feet away totally unscathed has long been a puzzle. Detailed studies by Prof. T.T. Fujita of tornado films and videos as well as airborne surveys of tornado damage demonstrated that many funnels break down into smaller vortices rotating about a common center and moving along with the mean speed of a tornado. These features, only tens of feet across, cause much of the major damage and "freakish" destruction. These suction vortices, as they are called, have dramatically higher wind speeds than their parent funnel cloud. Thus when the main funnel passes over, whether a house is severely damaged or not may depend on whether it gets nailed by one of these smaller whirls. Some multi-vortex funnels do not look like the commonly held image of a tornado, but can sometimes appear to be swirls of smoke and multiple snake-like columns whirling about a common core.

Are there other tornado-like vortices in the atmosphere?
Aside from dust devils and steam devils, intense atmospheric whirls can be found when there are unusually strong heat sources. Forest fires can induce intense fire whirls that can exceed 100 mph and extend for more than a mile in height. Similar vortices have been seen spring away from volcanic eruption clouds, the Kuwaiti oil fires during the 1991 Gulf War, and sometimes even in the exhuast plumes of large power plants. GO TO TOP

Do rivers protect you from tornadoes?
No way. There are numerous reports of twisters crossing major rivers such as the Mississippi and Missouri, damaging towns on both sides. And at least 30 significant tornadoes have crossed the Mississippi River. More than one river boat has been struck and sunk by twisters.

Where do tornadoes form with respect to the parent storm cell?
Tornadoes have a strong tendency to form near the right rear portion of a thunderstorm cell, particularly if it is an isolated storm called a supercell. The apparent mesocyclone, out of which many tornadoes form, is often centered in this updraft region of the storm. To the north and east are falling the heavy rain and hail. But the mesocyclone, which often appears as a hook-shaped echo on radar, tends to feature largely powerful updrafts, and therefore the region is characterized by a rain free base. Thus many tornadoes occur in areas with little rainfall (though sometimes large hailstone may be falling). This explains why many tornado pictures show clear skies in the background. GO TO TOP

What is a wall cloud?
A wall cloud is a feature that accompanies and processes many tornadoes. Its appearance is noted by severe storm spotters with concern and is a visible manifestation of the tornado mesocyclone. It is an often abrupt lowering of the rain-free base of the cumulonimbus cloud into a roughly circular, low hanging cloud, one to four miles in diameter. The wall clouds often have rapidly rising elements and are often rotating in the same direction as the tornado, but at a much slower speed. The collar cloud is a ring of cloud that sometimes surround the upper portion of the wall cloud. The rotating wall cloud has been known to to appear as much as an hour before touchdown.

What are tornado chasers?
Crazy. Or least some of the amateurs who don’t really understand what they are getting into could be described this way. Tornado researchers have been chasing storms (ideally driving to areas where they believe storms will form and then setting up for observations) for over two decades. The early chasers were associated with the National Severe Storms Laboratory and understood the behavior of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The chaser’s goal is to get close enough to get good data (whether video, radar or other measurements) but to stay far enough away in order not to get hurt or killed. There are also other hazards including giant hail, lightning, downburst winds and rain slick roads. The movie “Twister” glamorized storm chasing, but was highly unrealistic. No serious meteorologist in their right mind would attempt getting as close to the funnels as portrayed in the movie. Anyone inspired by the film to try a little chasing had first better read up on what it’s like out there - that first grapefruit size hailstone smashing through your windshield while you are driving 75 mph down an Interstate can ruin your day - and life! GO TO TOP

Do hurricanes spawn tornadoes?
Yes, and quite frequently. During hurricanes, tornadoes are a hazard. Some land falling tropical storms have spawned dozens of small twisters. They frequently occur on the outer fringes of the advancing storm. It is by no means unusual to be under both a tornado and hurricane watch or warning at the same time. Hurricane Beulah (1967) generated as many as 115 tornadoes upon making landfall in the U.S.

What are the tornado death tolls for the United States?
Over 10,000 Americans have been killed by tornadoes in this century. There have been, since 1880, at least 31 tornado outbreaks taking more than 100 lives. Between 1961 and 1990, the state with the highest annual average tornado fatality rate has been Mississippi (10 per year) followed by Texas (8), Indiana (7), Alabama (6), and Illinois, Ohio and Arkansas tied at 5 per year. The tornado death toll has been steadily decreasing, due in large part to improved warnings, communications, emergency preparedness and perhaps partially of the shift of population into urban areas.

What was the single deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak?
The worst single tornado tragedy in the United States was the Tri-State tornado outbreak (Missouri, Illinois and Indiana) of 18 March 1925. Several tornadoes claimed a total of 747 lives with an additional 2027 persons being injured. The largest of these twisters killed 695 persons, the worst single tornado casualty toll ever. GO TO TOP

What were the deadliest years for tornadoes in the U.S.?
The deadliest year for tornado deaths in the U.S. was 1925, when 794 died, many in the infamous Tri-State tornado in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. In more recent years, 1953 was grim, with 519 fatalities. Tornadoes in May and June, 1953 were especially deadly. On 11 May, 114 died in Waco, TX. On June 8, 116 perished in Flint, MI. The next day the weather system spawned a tornado in Worcester, MA, resulting in the loss of 90 more lives. The year with the fewest reported U.S. tornado deaths is 1986, when only 16 citizens perished.

What are the longest and shortest tornado paths on record?
A tornado on 18 March 1925 was believed to have stayed continuously on the ground for 215 miles. The Great Tri-State tornado swept across portions of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. In 1917 a tornado was reported to have traveled from Missouri to Indiana - a distance of 293 miles - while staying on the ground for seven hours and 20 minutes. But without a detailed damage survey it is difficult to tell whether the track may not have resulted from several successive tornado touchdowns. At the other end of the spectrum, one tornado touchdown was reported to be on the ground for a mere seven feet.

What was the biggest recorded tornado outbreak ever?
During the century, the largest single tornado outbreak occurred on 3-4 April 1974.
Over a span of 16 hours some 148 tornadoes slammed into 13 states east of the Mississippi plus the province of Ontario. Some 315 people were killed, 5,484 persons were injured and property damage was a half billion (1973) dollars. The total number of miles of tornado path lengths was 2,598, with a mean path length for each twister of 19 miles. Six of the 148 funnels reached F5 intensity status. Six towns were struck not once, but twice, in one day. The City of Xenia, OH saw both fortune and misfortune. While many people were killed and the high school was largely destroyed, most of the students had departed for the day. A group practicing a play in the gymnasium saw the funnel approaching and were able to reach a safer hallway just in time. A school bus was hurled through the roof onto the stage where they had been practicing. GO TO TOP

What are some other famous tornado outbreaks?
Palm Sunday (11 April) 1965 ranks as perhaps the second greatest outbreak of U.S. tornadoes. Some 37 tornadoes killed 271 midwesterners. The injury toll was greater than 5000.

The 3 May 1999 outbreak in the Oklahoma City area produced over 50 touch downs, many in urban and suburban areas. Over $1 billion in property losses were tallied, with around 50 fatalities. One of the twisters were reported to have a peak wind speed of about 315 mph, as determined by mobile Doppler radar, making it the strongest wind ever recorded on Earth.

On 21 November 1992, some 94 twisters blasted 13 states , ranging from Mississippi to Indiana to Maryland, leaving 26 dead, 641 injured and causing $291 million in damages. On 28 March 1984, 22 tornadoes killed 57, injured 1,248 and left behind $200 million in damages in South and North Carolina. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario were ravaged by 41 tornadoes on 31 May 1985, killing 75 (in the U.S.) , injuring 1.025 persons and damaging $450 worth of property.

One may note that these outbreaks did not occur in what is normally thought of as tornado alley. Large outbreaks can and do occur almost any place east of the Rockies. But in the alley from Texas to Iowa on 26-27 April 1991, 54 tornadoes touched down, killing 21, injuring 208 and causing $277 million in damages. GO TO TOP

What are your chances of being struck by a tornado?
Even if you were to camp out permanently in the heart of tornado alley, statistically speaking you would most likely have to wait 1400 years before being struck by a twister. Thus the “point probability” of direct strike by a tornado is pretty small. But there is an awful lot of tornadoes and “points” in the U.S., so during the peak of the season, at least five a day are touching down somewhere in the U.S. Many tornado researchers have never seen a tornado. Prof. T. T. Fujita, of the University of Chicago, called “Mr. Tornado” by many, had to wait more than 30 years before seeing his first live tornado. His custom license plate long described his period of frustration, TT 0000.

What is a waterspout?
A tornado over water is often called a waterspout. It is generally weaker than its landlubbing cousins. The area around the Florida Keys is prime waterspout territory. Peak winds are typically in the 50 to 100 mph range, enough to flip over the dingy for anyone thinking it’s cool to sail into one. Some waterspouts have moved inland causing damage and injuries so they are not to be taken lightly. Waterspouts generally are not associated with severe storms, but with average rain showers and weak thunderstorms. They are sometimes found over the Great Lakes, and even the Great Salt Lake, during period of intense cold air outbreaks over the warm water. When a genuine tornado just happens to move offshore, say crossing a lake or a river, it may be technically called a waterspout, but it doesn’t know that. It is still a tornado - just located over water.

Two men were reported missing on 18 June 1993 after a waterspout swept through Chicago’s harbor. One man was blown off a pier while the other, a wind surfer, was nowhere to be found after the vortex passed. GO TO TOP

What is a dust devil?
Dust devils are atmospheric whirlwinds which, while superficially resembling small tornadoes, form by totally different mechanisms. These swirling columns, which can rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise, form on sunny, hot days with relatively light winds, often over plowed fields or expanses of dirt or pavement. They result from superheated air near the sun baked ground rising into the cooler air aloft. These whirling dervishes, unlike the tornado, are not associated with thunderstorms. In some cases, wind speeds can kick up well over 50 mph. In a few cases, they have been seem to extend to over 5000 feet above ground.

Most dust devils just swirl across an open field and kick up a few puffs of dust and a handful of leaves. Some exceptionally large and long lived dervishes, however, if traveling over loose soil, can sweep upwards of 50 tons of dust and debris skyward.

What are some unusually strong dust devils?
One of the biggest ever formed over the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It grew to 24500 feet altitude and traveled for over 40 miles. One huge dust devils was seen swirling away while standing in place for over an hour in a trucking terminal near Des Moines. A large dust devil in New Mexico developed at the edge of a railroad embankment and excavated over a cubic meter of sand per hour for over four hours! It stopped only when a bulldozer was parked nearby, apparently interrupting the airflow into the vortex. Some dust devils have been known to overturn trailers and even down power lines in Arizona.

An unusually powerful dust devil swept a 300 yard long swath near Minong, WI on 6 May 1995. It damaged the roof of a house, tore through a snow fence, and caused a small fire when it downed a power line.

One day in March 1995, it was a beautiful sunny day in upstate South Carolina, with barely a cloud in the sky. Suddenly, a covered porch at a rural residence was smashed to smithereens by a sudden gust of wind with wreckage scattered over several acres. What happened? The best explanation is that a large dust devil swirled up from the hot ground. Most dust devils have winds under 50 mph and rarely cause damage, but as evidenced above, some are larger. GO TO TOP

What state is Number 1 in tornadoes?
We are not sure why a state would want that distinction, except perhaps to attract the producers of the sequel to “Twister” to go on location, but that seemingly simply question has a large variety of answers. It depends on how you define Numero Uno:

Texas - number of total tornado deaths (regardless of size)
Oklahoma - number of significant and violent tornadoes per square mile
Florida - number of tornado touchdowns per square mile, of any intensity
Arkansas - highest number of killer tornadoes per square mile
Kansas - highest number of F5 t intensity tornadoes since 1880
Iowa - greatest number of F5 tornadoes per square mile
Tennessee - highest percentage of tornadoes that causes fatalities
Alabama - highest percentage of tornadoes rated as of significant intensity
Kentucky - highest percentage of all tornadoes ranked as violent (F4 or F5)
Indiana - highest rank on scoring system measuring all aspects of tornadoes
Mississippi - highest percentage of population killed by tornadoes
Delaware - highest concentration of tornadoes causing injury

So, who is number one? Statistics, it has been said, can be used the way a drunk uses a lamppost, either for enlightenment or support. Or as Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Is it possible to survive a tornado?
Yes. In fact the odds are very much in your favor if you follow the basic safety rules. During the monster outbreak of 3-4 April 1974, over 30,000 people were directly involved inside tornadic vortices. While 315 people did perish, a full 99% of those directly affected by the tornado outbreak survived.

Who are most at risk in tornadoes?
Persons in mobile homes and automobiles, and in general the elderly, the very young and the physically or mentally impaired. Also at risk are those who have a language barrier to understanding a tornado warning as well as anyone else who doesn’t take precautions when a tornado threatens.

What can you do before a tornado to improve your survival odds?
It’s too late to buy a smoke detector after the fire starts. And there are some things you should do before a twister is coming up the driveway. When a tornado warning has just been issued and/or you see a twister bearing down on you, you should move to a pre-designated shelter (basement or interior room). Everyone in the home/school/office should know in advance where to go. You should consider having drills. Be sure you know what county you live in, or are visiting (surprisingly many people don’t), since warnings are often issued on a county basis. Have a NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm to automatically receive warnings. Also monitor commercial radio and television. Have a supply of batteries for flashlights and the weather radio as well as a first aid kit. GO TO TOP

What should you do if a tornado threatens?
If there is warning, or skies appear threatening, do not panic. But be prepared to move immediately to a pre-designated shelter, such as a basement. Remember, at night or during heavy rainstorms waiting before you can see the funnel before taking action can be a fatal mistake.

If an underground shelter is not available, move to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor and get under a sturdy piece of furniture. Bathrooms, with their reinforcing plumbing, are often relatively good shelters. The bathtub itself is a good option. Stay away from windows at all costs - flying glass is a major hazard. If caught outside, lie flat in a ditch, culvert or ravine, or any depressed area that may shelter you from flying debris. Do not seek shelter under a bridge or overpass, as the winds can be chanelled though at even greater speeds, carrying deadly misiles. The overall goal is to avoid being struck by flying debris. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes, and should be abandoned. Protect your head from flying debris. Wearing a football or motorcycle helmet is not a bad idea. The scene in Twister in which the stars lash themselves to a well pipe when being engulfed in the F5 funnel made no sense whatsoever. They would have been blasted by high speed debris and would have looked like beef jerky by the time the funnel was through with them.

A good source of current tornado safety tips is NOAA's Storm Prediction Center: www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/#Safety

Is a train a safe place to be during a tornado?
.The passenger train “The Empire Builder” had a confrontation with a large tornado on the tracks near Moorhead, MN on 27 May 1931. The train lost. Eight coach cars, each weighing more than 80 tons, were derailed. One shifted more than 80 feet off the tracks. One passenger was killed

What are the signs of an imminent tornado?
Even with today’s advanced radars and spotter networks, tornadoes can form suddenly and unexpectedly, without warning. Your own senses then become your front line of defense. Especially if there have been severe thunderstorms present in the area, a loud, thunderous roaring noise growing ever louder should be cause for immediate alarm. Many tornadoes occur outside the rain area, so don’t assume that the lack of rain is a good omen. In fact tornadoes can even strike when you can see a lot of blue sky. Large hail is often present in the vicinity of funnels. GO TO TOP

Should you open windows or doors during tornado warnings?
NO! This is an old wives tale. Creating an opening for the wind may actually increase damage and in any case being near a window exposes you to deadly flying glass. It used to be thought that much of the damage from tornadoes resulted from unequalized air pressure as the funnel moved over a building. It is now ascertained that it is primarily the wind effects that cause most structural damage. Any opening, including a garage door, that allows for the wind to “enter” the structure and begin acting on walls and ceilings increases the chance of damage.

Are tornadoes unique to the United States?
No, tornadoes occur in many countries around the world, although three out of four twisters do touch down in the U.S. of A. They tend to occur at mid-latitudes in regions experiencing strong surface fronts and jet streams aloft. Tornadoes are rare in the tropics. Australia may be the closest to the U.S. in term of tornado potential, but the sparse population makes a climatology difficult. Other countries experiencing a significant number of twisters include New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and in the northern hemisphere, much of middle Europe from Italy north into England and Russia. Jolly olde England actually can get some jolly severe weather. While nowhere near as frequent as in the US, at least 50 tornadoes were reported in an 82 year period ending in 1949. October is the peak month for British twisters. Japan, eastern China, northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Twisters have even spun up over Bermuda and the Fiji Islands are also at risk.

Though the frequencies of touchdowns are much less than in the U.S. other countries suffer fatalities from tornadoes. On 24 June 1904 a killer tornado swept through portions of Moscow, Russia taking at least 24 lives. On 19 march 1978, a tornado struck New Delhi, India. Seventeen persons perished and 700 were injured. In 1995 hundreds were reported killed in a tornado in Pakistan. GO TO TOP

What is the first known movie record of a tornado?
While spectacular tornado shots made with home camcorders are now almost commonplace on the nightly news, getting such footage in the “old days” wasn’t so easy. The first known film of an actual tornado was made in 1933. This is nearly two decades earlier than the 1951 Corn, OK tornado film once believed to be the earliest. And no, “The Wizard of Oz” did not use actual tornado footage. It was a Hollywood special effect - and a pretty darn good one. Video of an actual tornado taken several years ago looks spookily similar to the one which whisked Dorothy off to Oz.

What tornado almost changed American pop culture?
A tornado almost changed the course of popular music in the 20th century. On April 5, 1936, a devastating tornado ravaged Tupelo, Mississippi, killing over 200 residents. One of those who survived the devastation was an infant by the name of Elvis Aaron Presley.

Has anyone even seen the inside of a tornado?
And lived to tell about it......Yes. On 3 May 1943. McKinnet, Texas farmer Roy Hall survived the day. Not a bad feat since he had found himself trapped inside a 150 yard wide tornado funnel, and was able to look straight up into the rapidly whirling vortex for over a thousand feet. It looked rather like the inside of an elephant’s trunk. It also had a small mini-tornadoes spinning of the smooth wall of clouds, and these were illuminated by almost constant lightning. GO TO TOP

How many tornadoes actually kill people?
Only between 1 and 2% of U.S. tornadoes result in human fatalities. During 1993, there were 1167 confirmed twister touchdowns. Of these only 16 resulted in deaths. This is a testament to the ongoing improvement in the timeliness and accuracy of the National Weather Service’s tornado watches and warnings. It also suggests that once warned, it is relatively easy to find a safe haven even if a tornado is bearing down on you.

Do cows fly in tornadoes?
Yes. As do pigs, horses, and pickup trucks. A large tornado swept through Eau Claire County, Wisconsin on 27 August 1994. Among the casualties were 200 dairy cows. The storm could be said to have caused udder destruction. A twister swept through the grazing lands around Ashley, ND on 6 July 1962. And while it failed to strike any building, it did roar though a herd of cattle, leaving 68 animals dead in its wake.

Do tornadoes have "eyes”?
The eye of a hurricane is the often clear, nearly calm center about which the violent storm rotates. But does the much smaller tornadic vortex have a similar "calm" core? Very possibly. Both theoretical and observational evidence suggests that the inner portion of the tornado funnel may be largely cloud free and have relatively light winds. GO TO TOP

Do cities attract tornadoes?
This is not easily answered. Population density significantly affects the probability for a tornado being detected and reported. In many rural areas there is “nothing” for a tornado to hit, nor anyone there to see it not be hit. Moreover, in rural areas in the past people have been less prone to report tornadoes to authorities. Thus the statistics are biased to more heavily populated areas. Some have even suggested that tornadoes tend to avoid cities, but there seems to be little evidence of this. Build it and they will come. Unfortunately this may apply to cities and tornadoes. Scientists at Texas A&M University find that urban and suburban counties are more likely than primarily rural counties to experience tornadoes.

What is the largest death toll from a tornado?
If one broadens the definition beyond humans, this case might be a leading candidate. On 26 April 1994 a tornado swept through a turkey farm in Barron County, WI. As one might expect, this foul wind flattened the fowl - some 10,000 perished.

What is the record for July tornadoes?
July 1993 set an all-time U.S. tornado record for that month with 234 twisters touching down. A “normal” July total is 94, but July, 1993 was hardly normal, it being the peak of the Great Floods of 1993 in the Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys.

Are tornadoes attracted to trailer home parks?
One might think so, given the frequency with which they appear in storm damage reports. The reasons are twofold. First, there are many more trailer home parks in the nation than people realize. Second, the construction of these homes is such that they provide far less resistance to strong winds than conventional construction. If not properly tied down, they can begin to “fly” at wind speeds not much over 70 mph. Trailer home parks should have storm shelters. Never try to ride out a tornado, or even a severe thunderstorm in a trailer home. GO TO TOP

A tornado ripped through a southeastern Tennessee trailer home park on 26 April 1994. A man was killed. His daughter and grandson were in a nearby trailer which was also destroyed, but the daughter landed in a pile of rubble 300 yards away and the 9-month-old infant was tossed 100 yards. Both were injured but survived.

Why do you think they call them mobile homes? On August 5, 1992, a South Carolina tornado rolled a mobile home over THREE TIMES - and its lucky occupant managed to walk away without serious injury.

Can you have a tornado when the sun is shining?
Yes. Many tornadoes occur very close to the edge of the violent thunderstorm cloud that gives them birth. It is entirely possible, especially in the hour or so just before sunset, that the tornado itself could be in full sunlight for much of its life cycle.

Is the number of tornadoes increasing?
No, but the statistics are going up. In the 1950s there were 4,793 tornadoes reported in the United States. In the 1980s, there were 8194. Climate change? No. More people now live in or travel through the most tornado prone parts of the nation. There are now vastly better means of communications and the reporting of severe weather (if you see a twister, call 911,if you can do so safely). GO TO TOP

Are tornado fatalities increasing?
No, in fact there has been a long term downward trend in tornado deaths in the U.S., in spite of a steadily increasing population. In 1993, a then record number of 957 severe thunderstorm and tornado watches were issued by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (now named the Storm Prediction Center). The 1993 death toll from severe thunderstorms and tornadoes dropped to 33, well below the 30-year average of 82 fatalities. In the pre-forecast days in the 1930s, tornadoes alone killed almost 200 people each year.

What day is least likely to see a tornado in the U.S.?
If recent history is any guide, the 16th of January is a good bet, the only day of the year in this century (through 1993) on which a tornado touchdown has not been reported somewhere in the United States. There is at least one tornado touchdown somewhere in the U.S. on at least half the days of a typical year. More than ten tornadoes in a single day occur only 2.4 % of all days, or 9 times per year.

Is there double jeopardy in tornado strikes?
Since tornadoes are relatively rare, at least in these regions that you might have to wait centuries for one to strike any given point, you would figure that once you have been hit by a tornado, it would be clear sailing from then on out, right? Sure, but there are always exceptions. Statistics alone can not protect you.

When Your Number Is Up Department: on 2 December 1982 a Missouri man was injured when his home was flattened by a tornado. He moved into a trailer home for temporary shelter - and three weeks later was killed when a second tornado came through town.

Right Place at the Wrong Time Department: a house in Collinsville, IL was destroyed by a tornado on 18 May 1883. The rebuilt structure was hit again on 30 March 1938.

The possibility of a building being struck by a tornado is rare, typically less than once per thousand years. But one church in Guy, Arkansas has been damaged by twisters three times during the last century.

Statistically, you will have to wait hundreds of years to be struck by a tornado standing at any one spot in "tornado alley". But on 16 Match 1942, Baldwin, MI was lashed by a tornado, and before the clean up could even begin, another twister trotted through town only 25 minutes later.

War is hell but nothing like Nebraska ... a sentiment that must have been expressed by the Spanish American War veteran who returned home to Nebraska in 1899, only to have his house destroyed in a twister. He moved to Omaha, only to have his house destroyed again in 1913. There is no record of whether he went off to fight in World War I where it may have seemed safer. GO TO TOP

Why do the residents of Codell, Kansas get nervous every May 20th?
May 20th is a day on which the residents of Codell, KS probably watch the sky with more than the usual interest. In 1916 on that date the area was swept by a tornado. And again on 20 May 1917. And again on 20 May 1918. Things have been quiet since, but you never know…

Is the southwest corner of the basement the safest?
The southwestern corner of the basement is NOT the safest place to hide during a tornado - in fact it may be more dangerous than other parts. Your best chances to avoid injury or worse are to be under a stairwell or heavy table that can protect you from flying or collapsing debris.

How are tornadoes detected?
The new nationwide network of NEXRAD Doppler radars being installed is designed specifically for tornado warning purposes. While, except under unusual circumstances, the NEXRAD cannot detect the actual tornadic vortex, it often can spot the larger scale rotation (the tornado mesocyclone) out of which many form. NEXRAD does not always detect conditions leading to smaller tornadoes, but it is highly likely that it will provide warning, often with many minutes lead time, of most major twisters.

Are there high tornado frequencies outside of tornado alley?
Tornadoes actually can occur almost anywhere in the nation. And while the middle part of the county has the largest number, other regions are far from immune. Though not located in Tornado Alley proper, Harris County, TX (the Houston area) over the past 20 years has had the greatest chance of having or one more twister touchdowns. Better reporting has shown that central Florida has far more tornadoes than once thought. In the past 20 years, 19 “maxi tornadoes” have struck the U.S. These monster twisters are at the top of the six point tornado intensity scale (F0 through F5). Alabama has the distinction of leading the nation in F5-class tornadoes, reporting four over the last two decades. In any given year, tornadoes can take “detours” and strike one area of the nation with unusually great frequency. Several years ago, Weld County, Colorado, far from Tornado Alley, had more twisters than any other U.S. county. Most, fortunately, were weak and short-lived. GO TO TOP

Are there seasonal patterns to tornadoes?
The tornado season begins early along the Gulf Coast and before activity moves northwards with the sun in April and May, some pretty wild weather can happen. In March 1992, a mobile home was destroyed by a twister near Zero, Mississippi. Unfortunately nothing unusual there, expect that a three month old boy was swept away. His father thought his son was gone forever, only to look up and find the baby hanging upside down from the branch of a nearby tree. The child was not seriously injured.

Can tornadoes strike cities in the northern U.S.?
The worst tornado outbreak ever to hit the Twin Cities metropolitan area in Minnesota occurred on May 6, 1965. The death toll reached 13, and 371 were injured. At least 321 homes were destroyed and 1196 more were damaged. One of the most spectacular series of tornadoes ever roared through the Fargo, ND area in 1957. And tornadoes have been spotted well north into Canada and Alaska.

What is the pressure inside a tornado vortex?
No one is sure, except that it is very much lower than that of the surrounding atmosphere. One recording barometer which survived a near miss by a passing funnel dipped to around 24.00 inches (your home barometer doesn’t even go that low)

What is a gustnado?
The Weather Service doesn't issue gustnado watches or warnings, but such creatures exist. Formed in the strong wind shears along the gust front marking the strong outflowing winds at the leading edge of intense thunderstorms, they look very much like small tornadoes, which in fact they are. While rather short lived in nature, they can cause F1 scale damage, and sometimes more. GO TO TOP

What is a normal tornado season?
In a "normal" tornado season, about 1000-1100 confirmed twisters touch down. The average number of fatalities over the past 30 years has been 82 per season. Often more Americans die from lightning strikes than tornadoes.

What was the worst tornado disaster in the world?
The U.S. may have the largest number of tornadoes, but it may have lost the dubious distinction of hosting the deadliest tornado. A twister struck about 40 miles north of Dhaka, Bangladesh on 26 April 1989. At least 1109 were killed, 15,000 injured and 100,000 left homeless. Other twisters have struck that region and may have taken even worse tolls.

What is the average path length of a tornado?
In the U.S., the "average" tornado has a path length of about 5 miles and a width of 160-170 yards. The total amount of area involved in a typical twister is about one square mile. However, the feared maxi-tornado can exceed many times these numbers.

Can tornadoes rotate the "wrong way?"
Yes, while the vast majority rotate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, a few percent do spin in the opposite direction. Southern hemisphere tornadoes naturally do the reverse. Smaller vortices in the atmosphere, such as dust devils, tend to have a larger percentage spinning clockwise.

What do tornadoes sound like?
Witnesses to a tornado often say it sounds like a thousand freight trains passing. On the other hand, a railroad engineer in Minnesota, who was involved in a major train collision, said it sounded to him like a thousand tornadoes. GO TO TOP

The following are the contestants for the short distance toss of very heavy objects:

On 7 May 1995 at least 18 people were killed in several Texas twisters, including one man whose body was found 130 feet away from where he had been standing on the porch of his mobile home. (In a related tragedy in Dallas, three people were killed as they were apparently sucked down a manhole by ten foot flood waters.)

Severe weather hit Tazewell County, IL on 9 May 1995. The winds were so strong that a 40 x 80 foot farm building was blown a quarter of a mile across a field.

A tornado, apparently not of the God-fearing type, struck a church. It ripped off its steeple and carried it some 15 miles. Another whirlwind sucked up an ice chest weighing some 800 pounds and transported it over three miles.

A 1973, a Nebraska tornado struck a house and carried a 500 pound baby grand piano over a quarter of a mile through the air.

Among the tornado's favorite tricks is to hurl missiles through the air into other objects. Pieces of 2x4 lumber though bricks walls and corn cobs driven into telephone poles are among the more common.

On 10 June 1958, violent tornadoes struck the area around Eldorado, Kansas. A woman was sucked through the window of her house and hurled 60 feet. Beside her was a phonograph record entitled "Stormy Weather".

The Lubbock, Texas tornado of 1970 was famed for its destructive force. A 41 foot long fertilizer tank, weighing 13 tons, was blown and/or rolled three quarters of a mile away from its original position.

Pieces of frozen mattresses fell from the sky into Boston Harbor on 9 June 1953. These were debris from the Worcester, MA tornado, some 50 miles away, which struck many buildings including, it would seem, some furniture stores.

On 7 February 1988, for no apparent reason, in Lancashire, England the winds, which had been in the 10-20 mph range, suddenly gusted to 106 mph. The gust tossed a 150 pound sheep feeding trough over 15 feet but otherwise had little impact. We’re not sure this was a tornado, but we wouldn’t want to try to pull the wool over your eyes. GO TO TOP

What debris has been lofted by tornado funnels?
Tornadoes and waterspouts often act rather like a vacuum cleaner, sucking almost anything from the surface high into the atmosphere. But what goes up, does come down, and often causing great surprise in the process.

A gentleman living near London in 1984 heard loud thumping sounds on his roof one night while watching TV. The next morning he found a half dozen flounders and whitings up to six inches in length on his roof. Other locals found fish deposited in their gardens. Either herons fishing the Thames dropping their catch or the debris from a waterspout were considered likely sources of the fish fall.

How sweet it is.... On two nights in September, 1857, showers of a candy-like substance fell from the sky over Lake County, California. Some of the crystals were the size of a thumbnail, and were collected and turned into confections by some local residents. With candy prices as they are, too bad we can’t schedule such an event for Valentine’s Day.

Of mice and men. In the year 1578, a large number of yellow mice fell from the sky in the city of Bergen in western Norway.

In Wolverhampton, England there occurred a violent thunderstorm in 1860 in which the heavy rain became mixed with small, sharp black pebbles. Enough fell in some places that they had to be swept away.

Pennies from Heaven. Yes, we do have those, and half pennies, too. They fell out of the sky near Bristol, England in 1956. Pennies are no big deal in these days of inflation. But in Germany in 1976, two ministers were surprised to find some 2000 marks worth of bills fluttering earthward. It was not reported if they had been praying for money.

Quack, Quack. Ouch....In Maryland, on 7 January 1969, literally hundreds of badly injured ducks fell from the sky, apparently having been hurt while in flight. Cause unknown.

The smelt run on the Great Lakes is a spring time fisherperson’s delight. But there was one report in 1986 of smelt literally falling from the sky, by the thousands, near Alpena, MI. Seagulls were startled too, but not enough to prevent them from going into a feeding frenzy.

Seashells by the seashore. But in a shower? Near Stoke-on-Kent, England on 21 March 1983, severe weather produced numerous weird effects including ball lightning, several tornadoes, and a shower of seashells from the sky.

Toads. Toads. Toads. In 1953 the town of Leicester, MA was deluged by a fall of toads. Children were able to gather them up by the bucketful.

A small boat floundering in 8 foot waves during a spring storm near Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay had more than capsizing to worry about in 1986. Suddenly thousand of small silvery fish began falling from the sky like a silver rain. They were promptly followed by hundreds of very hungry seagulls. Fortunately for the mariners, they were smelt and not carp. Those big fish can hurt!

Julian Cowan of Brighton, England was hungry when he was walking though his neighborhood in 1983. All of a sudden, a 10 inch spider crab dropped out of the sky in front of him. It was lacking two legs and a claw, and was quite dead. The seafood was promptly followed by a spate of wind driven hailstones. Though not commented on by the press, we suspect Mr. Cowan declined to dine on the air mail delivered delicacy.

There was a thunderstorm in Charleston, SC on 2 July 1843. Thunder was heard. Rain fell. An alligator fell. On Anson Street. Really!

Things go better with coke. OK, but what about the kind that is derived from coal? In England, after a 1983 thunderstorm, there were numerous reports of chunks of the carbon, some several inches across, scattered throughout several towns. Some were found inside melting hailstones.

Here’s a free story idea for Stephen King. In Brazil on 27 August 1968, a shower of blood and flesh fell from the sky for over five minutes time over an area of thousands of square yards. Also quite icky was the fall of maggots during a thunder squall during the 1968 Olympic sailing events offshore of Acapulco, Mexico. GO TO TOP

How far can tornadoes carry debris?
The Olympic short distance toss contest will be joined by the following demonstration “sport, ” the long distance debris carrying contest. Once sucked up into a thunderstorm by a tornado, just how far can some objects go?

For hundreds of years there have been reports of strange objects (fish, turtles, etc.) falling from the sky, presumably after being lofted by some distant tornado. Now researchers at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Meteorology are interested in receiving such reports as part of a study of severe storm dynamics. And while falling fish are of interest, reports of items that can be traced back to their source of origin (canceled checks, pieces of mail, etc.) are of most value. Recent research has collected a long list of items which have fallen from the skies, apparently after being lofted by a tornado. Some of the more interesting things that were gone with the wind: plate glass, land title papers, a music box, trousers, coats, a wedding gown, a tie rack, dead ducks, a cow...and an airplane wing. A jar of pickles was swept away and landed.....25 miles downwind. And it was unbroken.

On 25 April 1880, a tornado which went through Noxubee, MI carried an entire bolt of cloth some 8 miles - without it unraveling.

On 13 June 1953, Emily McNutt of South Weymouth, MA found a wedding gown in her backyard. It was dirty but otherwise in good condition. Some detective work traced the gown back to a woman in Worcester, MA, some 50 miles away. The gown was just one of the many pieces of debris flung over eastern Massachusetts by the passage of a powerful tornado.

On 15 April 1979, canceled checks began fluttering out of the sky in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Their source: a bank struck by a tornado earlier in the day in Wichita Falls, Texas. They were carried by the thunderstorm for over 200 miles.

A tornado destroyed a motel near Broken Bow, OK. The motel’s sign was later found in Arkansas.
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