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For other uses of Tornado, see Tornado (disambiguation).
A tornado.
A tornado.

A tornado is a violent windstorm characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud. The word "tornado" comes from the Spanish or Portuguese verb tornar, meaning "to turn." The phenomenon appears in storms all around the world, most famously in a broad area of the American Midwest and South known as Tornado Alley. Although the United States experiences more tornadoes than any other country, when relative land area is accounted for, the United Kingdom is the most tornado-prone country in the world. Some common, related slang terms are: twister, whirlwind, wedge, funnel, gustnado, landspout, willy-willy, or rope.


Tornado formation

Tornadoes develop from severe thunderstorms, usually spawned from squall lines and supercell thunderstorms, though they sometimes happen as a result of a hurricane. They are believed to be produced when cool air overrides a layer of warm air, forcing the warm air to rise rapidly. Tornadoes, lightning, and sometimes hail are associated with thunderstorms. Many tornadoes appear at the tail end of mesocyclones. On weather radar screens, a characteristic "hook echo" represents the area where a tornado may exist.

Tornado damage to man-made structures is the result of high wind velocity and the associated wind-blown debris. Tornadic winds have been measured well in excess of 300 mph (480 km/h). Tornado season in North America is generally March through October, although tornadoes can occur at any time of year. They tend to occur in the afternoons and evenings: over 80 percent of all tornadoes strike between noon and midnight.

Tornadoes can be nearly invisible, marked only by swirling debris at the base of the funnel. While tornadoes are invisible at night, some nocturnal tornadoes have been observed glowing diffusely due to lightning activity. Verified observations by Hall and others suggest a cellular structure inside tornadoes. Some tornadoes are composed of several mini-funnels. A tornado must by definition have both ground and cloud contact.

Tornado characteristics

No two tornadoes look exactly alike. Nor have any two tornadoes behaved exactly the same. There are documented incidents of tornadoes repeatedly hitting the same town several years in a row. But forecasting the exact location a tornado will strike at any given time is nearly impossible.

Not every thunderstorm, supercell, squall line, or hurricane will produce a tornado. Luckily, it takes exactly the right combination of atmospheric variables (wind, temperature, pressure, humidity, etc) to spawn even a weak tornado. On the other hand, roughly 1,000 tornadoes a year are reported in the contiguous US. Of all tornadoes formed in the US, F0 and F1 tornadoes account for a large percentage of occurrences. On the other end of the scale, the massively destructive F5 tornadoes account for less than 1% of all tornadoes in the US.

Even though no two tornadoes are exactly alike, they always have the same general characteristics that classify them as tornadoes. First, a tornado is a microscale rotating area of wind. A thunderstorm can rotate, but that does not mean it is a tornado. Secondly, the vortex (rotating wind) must be attached to a convective cloud base and be in contact with the ground. Some of those are thunderstorms embedded in squall lines, supercell thunderstorms, and also not to exclude the outer fringes of landfalling hurricanes. Third, a spinning vortex of air must have caused enough damage to be classified by the Fujita scale as a tornado.

Tornadoes vs. other meteorological vortices

Tornadoes are not to be confused with other meteorological vortices such as waterspouts and dust devils, which are not generally pendant from thunderstorms and are, as such, formed by entirely different physical mechanisms.

Waterspouts are not tornadoes, though many believe them to be. They are not generally pendant from thunderstorms, and as such, are formed by different physical mechanisms. Waterspouts can look similar to tornadoes, but they are generally substantially less destructive. Most are not that powerful, and last usually 10-15 minutes. They can be extremely dangerous, though, not only to ships, but planes. It has been theorized by some that they are responsible for some or many disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, an area where waterspouts are frequent.

Bear in mind that tornadoes that do form over water, i.e., that are pendant from thunderstorms, are generally much more destructive and dangerous than waterspouts. Regardless of the occurrence of either a waterspout or a true tornado over water, both can be quite large. Fair-weather spouts are not usually a threat, though they can cause boaters trouble. They are almost always vertical. Tornados over water are usually quite dangerous, posing threats to ships, planes, and swimmers. It is recommended to keep a considerable distance from either of these phenomena, and to always be on alert through weather reports. In order to prevent confusing the public when issuing warnings, the National Weather Service considers waterspouts to be tornadoes (tornadoes over water, to be precise). However, this consideration does not change the differing physical mechanisms that create tornadoes and waterspouts or that they are, as such, different vortices, much as landspouts (analogous to a waterspout over land) and gustnados (weak vortices appearing with the gust front of a thunderstorm) are different vortices.

Tornado climatology

The United States experiences by far the most tornadoes of any country and has also suffered the most intense ones. However, tornadoes do occur throughout the world; the most tornado-prone region of the world, as measured by number of tornadoes per unit area, is the United Kingdom, especially England [1]. New Zealand and portions of Uruguay also have pockets of strong tornadic activity. In Canada, an average of 80 tornadoes occur annually, killing 2, injuring 20 and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. The last killer tornado in Canada struck Pine Lake , Alberta, on July 14, 2000, killing 11.

On average, the United States experiences 100,000 thunderstorms each year, resulting in over 1,000 tornadoes and approximately 50 deaths per year. The deadliest US tornado on record is the March 18, 1925, Tri-State Tornado that crossed southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, and southern Indiana, killing 695 people. More than six tornadoes in one day is considered a tornado outbreak. The biggest tornado outbreak on record—with 148 tornadoes, including six F5 and 23 F4 tornadoes—occurred on April 3, 1974; it is dubbed the Super Outbreak. Another such significant storm system was the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak which affected the United States Midwest on April 11, 1965.

Social implications of tornadoes

A tornado's intensity is rated on the Fujita-Pearson Tornado Scale (also known simply as Fujita scale). The intensity can be derived directly with high resolution Doppler radar wind speed data or empirically derived from structural damage compared to engineering data. Also, note that intensity does not refer in any way to the size or width of a tornado.

Trained weather spotters are often on alert to look for tornadoes and notify local weather agencies when severe weather is occurring or predicted to be imminent. In the United States, skywarn spotters, often local sheriff's deputies, fulfill this role. Additionally, some individuals, known as storm chasers, enjoy pursuing thunderstorms and tornadoes to explore their many visual and scientific aspects.

According to Environment Canada, the chances of being killed by a tornado are 12 million to 1 (12,000,000:1). One may revise this yearly and/or regionally, but the probability may be factually stated to be low. Tornadoes do cause millions of dollars in damage, both economic and physical, displacement, and many injuries every year. Storm chasers have attempted to place probes in the path of oncoming tornadoes in an effort to analyze the interior of the storms, but only about five probes have been successful since around 1990.

Some common myths about tornadoes, which people should not rely upon to protect themselves, are given in the article on The Super Outbreak of 1974, which states some of the most dangerous tornadoes formed near rivers and crossed them, steep hills, mountains and deep valleys. Other misconceptions and science fiction concerning tornado formation crops up from time to time. See Tornado myths.

Tornado awareness and safety

Each year at the outset of tornado season, schools and media outlets in tornado-prone areas spend time educating the public about the dangers and what can be done to improve the chances of surviving a storm. In the United States, citizens are often advised to purchase NOAA Weather Radios. They are relatively inexpensive devices costing as little as $20 in U.S. currency, which will activate whenever the National Weather Service issues severe weather warnings. Warnings are also carried on radio and television, and most communities have civil defense sirens that will activate when severe weather is believed to be approaching.

 When tornado warnings are issued, members of the public are advised to get into sheltered areas.  In most buildings, it is recommended to seek shelter in a central, windowless room or corridor, below ground if possible.  If a tornado does strike a building, it can cause debris to rain down on people inside, so it is advisable to crouch under strong beams, in doorways, or under strong furniture.  However, light structures such as mobile homes are in severe danger when tornadoes and strong winds appear.  Residents of such structures are advised to evacuate them whenever severe weather is imminent and seek shelter in sturdier buildings, whether they are designated shelters or the homes of nearby friends.  Storm cellars are also common places of refuge in some regions.

Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Otherwise, park the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible—out of the traffic lanes (it is safer to get the vehicle out of mud later if necessary than to cause a crash) and seek shelter in a sturdy building or ditch. You should not, under any circumstances, stay in a vehicle if the vehicle is in or near the path of a tornado. Vehicles are easily tossed around by the extreme winds created by a tornado.

Some people take shelter underneath bridge overpasses during storms, but they are not considered a the best place to take shelter. The National Weather Service office, based in Norman, Oklahoma, has created a presentation discussing the use of bridges as protection during the Oklahoma Tornado Outbreak that occurred on May 3, 1999, in the region of Oklahoma City, where tornadoes passed over three different bridges—at least one person was killed in each instance. Bridges vary in construction and many do not provide any significant protection from the wind and flying debris. Further, the conglomeration of vehicles that can result from several people parking their vehicles under and around the bridge can block the progress of other vehicles, potentially keeping them from having a chance to reach safety.

Further safety information is available via the "External links" section below.

See also

this century.


  • Thomas P. Grazulis; Significant Tornadoes: 1860 - 1991; Environmental Films;

ISBN 1879362007 (hardcover, 1993)

External links

Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

Library of Congress, America's Story.

  • [ F3 and F4 tornadoes in Germany since


  • [ Tornado

damage] (in 1899; archived panoramic photographs)

Fallout from the May 3, 1999 Tornado Outbreak]. National Weather Service, Norman, Oklahoma.

  • [ An F3 tornado hit Acht (Eifel,

Germany) on June 10th 2003]

Norman, Oklahoma: Tornado research and education]

Last updated: 10-18-2005 04:17:13
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