Although tornadoes occur in many parts of the world, these destructive forces of nature are found most frequently in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains during the spring and summer months. In an average year, 800 tornadoes are reported nationwide, resulting in 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries. A tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction with wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Once a tornado in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, carried a motel sign 30 miles and dropped it in Arkansas!
What causes tornadoes?
Thunderstorms develop in warm, moist air in advance of eastward-moving cold fronts. These thunderstorms often produce large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Tornadoes in the winter and early spring are often associated with strong, frontal systems that form in the Central States and move east. Occasionally, large outbreaks of tornadoes occur with this type of weather pattern. Several states may be affected by numerous severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
During the spring in the Central Plains, thunderstorms frequently develop along a “dryline,” which separates very warm, moist air to the east from hot, dry air to the west. Tornado-producing thunderstorms may form as the dryline moves east during the afternoon hours.
Along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, in the Texas panhandle, and in the southern High Plains, thunderstorms frequently form as air near the ground flows “upslope” toward higher terrain. If other favorable conditions exist, these thunderstorms can produce tornadoes.
Tornadoes occasionally accompany tropical storms and hurricanes that move over land. Tornadoes are most common to the right and ahead of the path of the storm center as it comes onshore.
Colorado Tornado (David Blanchard)
Dr. Joseph Golden (NOAA)
- Some tornadoes may form during the early stages of rapidly developing thunderstorms. This type of tornado is most common along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, the Plains, and the Western States.
- Tornadoes may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up.
- Occasionally, two or more tornadoes may occur at the same time.
- Waterspouts are weak tornadoes that form over warm water.
- Waterspouts are most common along the Gulf Coast and southeastern states. In the western United States, they occur with cold late fall or late winter storms, during a time when you least expect tornado development.
- Waterspouts occasionally move inland becoming tornadoes causing damage and injuries.
How Do Tornadoes Form?
|Before thunderstorms develop, a change in wind direction and an increase in wind speed with increasing height creates an invisible, horizontal spinning effect in the lower atmosphere.||Rising air within the thunderstorm updraft tilts the rotating air from horizontal to vertical.||An area of rotation, 2-6 miles wide, now extends through much of the storm. Most strong and violent tornadoes form within this area of strong rotation.|
Woodward OK (Ron Przybylinski)A lower cloud base in the center of the photograph identifies an area of rotation known as a rotating wall cloud. This area is often nearly rain-free. Note rain in the background.
Woodward OK (Ron Przybylinski)Moments later a strong tornado develops in this area. Softball-size hail and damaging “straight-line” winds also occurred with this storm.
Tornadoes are vertical funnels of rapidly spinning air. Their winds may top 250 miles (400 kilometers) an hour and can clear-cut a pathway a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide and 50 miles (80 kilometers) long.
Twisters are born in thunderstorms and are often accompanied by hail. Giant, persistent thunderstorms called supercells spawn the most destructive tornadoes.
These violent storms occur around the world, but the United States is a major hotspot with about a thousand tornadoes every year. “Tornado Alley,” a region that includes eastern South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, and eastern Colorado, is home to the most powerful and destructive of these storms. U.S. tornadoes cause 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries per year.
A tornado forms when changes in wind speed and direction create a horizontal spinning effect within a storm cell. This effect is then tipped vertical by rising air moving up through the thunderclouds.
The meteorological factors that drive tornadoes make them more likely at some times than at others. They occur more often in late afternoon, when thunderstorms are common, and are more prevalent in spring and summer. However, tornadoes can and do form at any time of the day and year.
Tornadoes’ distinctive funnel clouds are actually transparent. They become visible when water droplets pulled from a storm’s moist air condense or when dust and debris are taken up. Funnels typically grow about 660 feet (200 meters) wide.
Tornadoes move at speeds of about 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 kilometers) per hour, although they’ve been clocked in bursts up to 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour. Most don’t get very far though. They rarely travel more than about six miles (ten kilometers) in their short lifetimes.
Tornadoes are classified as weak, strong, or violent storms. Violent tornadoes comprise only about two percent of all tornadoes, but they cause 70 percent of all tornado deaths and may last an hour or more.
People, cars, and even buildings may be hurled aloft by tornado-force winds—or simply blown away. Most injuries and deaths are caused by flying debris.
Tornado forecasters can’t provide the same kind of warning that hurricane watchers can, but they can do enough to save lives. Today the average warning time for a tornado alert is 13 minutes. Tornadoes can also be identified by warning signs that include a dark, greenish sky, large hail, and a powerful train-like roar.
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