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What is a Tornado? Facts and Pictures

Updated on July 18, 2017
This tornado was photographed 7 miles south of Anadarko, Oklahoma, May 3, 1999. Even something that can be very destructive can be beautiful.
This tornado was photographed 7 miles south of Anadarko, Oklahoma, May 3, 1999. Even something that can be very destructive can be beautiful. | Source

What is a Tornado?

Dictionary.com defines a tornado as "a mobile, destructive vortex of violently rotating winds having the appearance of a funnel-shaped cloud and advancing beneath a large storm system.

The word "tornado" originates from the Latin word "tonare", which means "to thunder." That word then became the Spanish word "tronada" which means thunderstorm. English speaking people then starting pronouncing the word in the form we use today - tornado.

In the U.S. tornadoes are also called twisters.


Where do most tornadoes strike?

Regions of the World with Increased Likelihood of Experiencing Tornadoes
Regions of the World with Increased Likelihood of Experiencing Tornadoes | Source

Where is the tornado capital of the world?

The United States leads the world in the number of tornadoes annually, but only because of its size. Measured by tornadoes per acre, the U.K. the has the highest number of tornadoes annually, though the majority are relatively weak. (NOAA)

Tornadoes occur on all continents except Antarctica. North America's millions of acres, different climate zones and topographical features make it a prime breeding ground for tornadoes.

What types of tornadoes are there?

Climatologists have two categories which classifies tornadoes by how they are created: supercell and non-supercell.

Supercell

These tornadoes are formed along with violent thunderstorms. They are the strongest and most dangerous, with windspeeds sometimes reaching over 200 mph.

The vortex of winds in a supercell is not considered a tornado until it touches both the base of the "mother" cloud and the ground. Until then the vortex of winds is called a funnel cloud.

Non-supercell

Non-supercell tornadoes are divided into three types.

  • Gustnado, also known as a dust devil or whirlwind: It is formed by gusts of wind in front of a storm front. It is a forms on or just above the earth's surface.
  • Landspout: This is a tornado with a thin, rope-like vortex that forms before a storm. The rotation starts on the ground, and is not caused by updrafts of air.
  • Waterspouts: They are landspouts which are formed over surfaces of water.

How Does a Supercell Tornado Form?

For a tornado to form, certain atmospheric conditions must be present: adequate low-level moisture, an unstable atmosphere, and clashing cold and warm weather fronts.

This three conditions make the atmosphere ripe for violent weather.

Stable vs unstable atmosphere

According to Meteorologytraining.tpub.com, "The atmosphere has a tendency to resist vertical motion. This is known as stability."

A stable atmosphere keeps air flowing horizontally, even when the air flow is disturbed. An unstable atmosphere allows air flow to develop both horizontally and vertically. This results in unstable air.

Clashing weather fronts

When a cold weather front meets a warm weather front with plenty of moisture, the warm, moist air, being lighter then the cooler air, rises. As the warm air rises, it meets cooler air and condenses, which forms moisture-laden thunderhead clouds.

The rising air will meet winds coming from different directions at various altitudes. These upper level winds will cause the rising air to spin, at first horizontally, then vertically as the air rises faster and faster. A tornado has been born.

Category F5 tornado viewed from the southeast as it approached Elie, Manitoba on Friday, June 22nd, 2007.
Category F5 tornado viewed from the southeast as it approached Elie, Manitoba on Friday, June 22nd, 2007. | Source

The Enhanced Fujita Scale

F Rating
Wind Speed
Damage Expected
EF-0
65–85
Light
EF-1
86–110
Moderate
EF-2
111–135
Significant
EF-3
136–165
Severe
EF-4
166–200
Devastating
EF-5
>200
Incredible

What is the Fujita Scale?

The Fujita scale classifies tornadoes on a scale of 0-5 based on the speed of a tornado's winds and the damage caused by those winds. The scale is named after Dr. Ted Fujita, a scientist who developed the scale in 1971.

The Fujita scale has since been revised by experts and is believed to be much more accurate. The new scale, adopted by meteorologists in 2007, is known as the Enhanced Fujita Scale. It is known more commonly as the EF scale.

Since there is yet no practical way to measure the wind speeds inside a tornado, scientists estimate the wind speed by examining structural damage done by tornadoes.

Scientists and meteorologists will also look at the marks a tornado leaves on the ground, consider eye-witness testimony, video evidence and radar images to rate a tornadoes severity.

The oldest known photograph of a tornado.

This is one of the oldest known photos of a tornado. The picture was taken August 28, 1884. 22 miles southwest of Howard, South Dakota. Four people were died during this killer storm.
This is one of the oldest known photos of a tornado. The picture was taken August 28, 1884. 22 miles southwest of Howard, South Dakota. Four people were died during this killer storm. | Source

Tornado Facts

  • Oklahoma City, OK has the honor of being the city that has been most hit by tornadoes - 100. Huntsville, Alabama is second.
  • Only 2% of tornadoes cause 70% of the deaths. These are the tornadoes with wind speeds greater than 200 mph, and which can last longer than one hour.
  • Tornadoes rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.
  • 695 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured by the single most deadly tornado on record. This tornado lay down a trail of devastation for 219 miles across parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925.
  • The record for most tornadoes in a single month was 543 tornadoes, set in May 2003.
  • Houses do not explode or implode because of pressure changes in a tornado. They are destroyed by the winds.

A double twister

A double twister is photographed south of Dimmitt, Texas, June 2, 1995
A double twister is photographed south of Dimmitt, Texas, June 2, 1995 | Source
  • Florida has more twisters per square mile than any other state.
  • Tornadoes kill an average of 70 people a year in the U.S.
  • The deadliest outbreak of tornadoes killed 308 people on April 3, 1974. The two-day outbreak of 147 tornadoes occurred across 13 states.
  • A single tornado can be one mile wide.
  • May is the month which has the most twisters. June is second.
  • It is an old wives' tale that the safest place to be during a tornado is in the southeast corner of your basement. The safest place is in an interior room on the lowest level of your home.
  • The tornado that affected the most people world-wide occurred in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989. It killed 800 people and injured or displaced 102,000.

Tornado in Manhattan, Kansas, May 31,1949
Tornado in Manhattan, Kansas, May 31,1949 | Source

Tornado Watch vs Tornado Warning

A tornado watch is issued for your area if conditions are right or may become right for the development of tornadoes.

A tornado warning for your area means a tornado has been spotted or is being shown on radar. You should seek immediate shelter.

Which is Scarier: A Hurricane or a Tornado?

I have lived both in the Midwest and on the East Coast of North America. I have witnessed and lived through a few hurricanes. They are scary storms, sending millions of people fleeing from their path. Listening to a hurricane beat against your house for hours, even days, is nerve wracking.

The biggest difference between the two, in my opinion, is that you have at least a week's warning when a hurricane is coming. When a tornado appears, you have minutes, not days, to get out of its destructive path.

In hurricanes more people die because of the storm surge and flooding, something that can be predicted with some accuracy and from which a person can evacuate from before hand. Twisters kill with their deadly winds.


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    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 20 months ago from North Dakota

      Thanks for the additional info breathing. Very interesting!

    • breathing profile image

      Sajib 20 months ago from Bangladesh

      First I would like to thank the author from the core of my heart for writing such an informative and detailed article on tornadoes. Most of us are not well educated about tornadoes. This hub can be the perfect knowledge source. The author has discussed all the things beautifully. Here I’ll only a few more types of tornadoes so that everybody knows about them.

       Wedge tornado is a kind of super cell tornado. It is caused by the warm and cool air movement. It is a very powerful tornado.

       Multi-vortex tornadoes cause damage to specific regions by creating multiple vortexes. This is short lasting tornado.

       Waterspout is a weak kind of tornado which is formed by the rising of water in the form of column from the sea.

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 2 years ago from North Dakota

      Hi Firestorm. Luckily they tend to be weak ones!

    • profile image

      Fire8storm 2 years ago

      Fascinating Hub, thank you for sharing! I have always been amazed by weather storms and have learnt some great facts on tornadoes reading this. I was also very surprised to learn the UK featured so highly in tornado prevalence....I had no idea!

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 2 years ago from North Dakota

      Thanks Mel. I have been following your hubs and enjoy them a lot. Keep it up!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      You were my first hub pages follower, but for some reason I lost track of your work, until I just saw your name on the feed. My sister used to live in Huntsville, Alabama, which has the distinction you say of second most tornado stricken city, and I believe it because she had a couple close calls when she lived there. Amazing that England gets more tornadoes per square mile than anywhere else. Great hub, I shared it!

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 4 years ago from North Dakota

      Hi Lastheart, If you visit, just keep an eye on the weather. Tornadoes happen just about everywhere on earth.

      Thanks for reading and sharing!

    • Lastheart profile image

      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 4 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      Very interesting and complete. I have never been near one. I will be in US in a part where they come and go like if its their homeland...uffff after reading this I think I should suspend my trip. Thanks up across and sharing.

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 4 years ago from North Dakota

      Thank you, faythef. The tornadoes have been terrifying for the people in Oklahoma. My heart goes out to them. I cannot imagine the heartbreak they are going through right now.

    • faythef profile image

      Faythe F. 4 years ago from USA

      great information and a timely hub, with all the horrific tornadoes currently happening..voting up and sharing

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 4 years ago from North Dakota

      Subron, I had not heard of the tornado, but did look up an account of it today, yours perhaps? It sounded like a horrific thing to live through.

      I don't believe anyone gets over the horror of a monster storm like that, a fact that Monday's tornado survivors will realize in the months and years to come.

      Thank you for sharing. I will look for your book. :)

    • SubRon7 profile image

      James W. Nelson 4 years ago from eastern North Dakota

      Another really good hub, Gcrhoada64. You have probably been following the destruction in Oklahoma. So have I, and it has brought back many memories, although the memories stay with me daily anyway, but hearing about another monster like the Moore tornado can increase them.

      If you have lived in ND, you maybe have heard of the 1955 Walcott tornado. That one was mine. I wrote a first-person article about it many years ago, which appeared in The Forum, then years later I put it into my memoirs as one chapter. But after Moore I have decided to turn that chapter into a really short book for Amazon.

      Just this morning I did an internet search. The Walcott tornado was classified as an F4, and two internet locations noted it probably became an F5 in a few places.

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image
      Author

      Gable Rhoads 4 years ago from North Dakota

      Thank you, Melinda. Too me they are way scarier than a hurricane.

    • mylindaelliott profile image

      mylindaelliott 4 years ago from Louisiana

      Very nice article. Tornadoes are so awesome and scary. I have only been near one and that was enough.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Yikes! The power of mother nature! Great hub.