|Tornado with condensation||funnel|
|Tornado with debris funnel|
Each year, tornadoes take the lives of many people. The yearly average is about 100 (60 in the United States), although over 100 may die in a single day. The deadliest tornadoes are those that occur in families; that is, different tornadoes all spawned within a region with favorable atmospheric conditions for tornado development.
When a large number of tornadoes (typically 6 or more) forms over a particular region, this constitutes a tornado outbreak. One of the most violent occurred on April 3 and 4, 1974. During a 16 hour period, 148 tornadoes cut through parts of 13 states, killing 307 people, injuring more than 6000, and causing an estimated $600 million in damage.
An extreme tornado outbreak occured in the southeastern United States from April 25 - 28, 2011. There were 359 confirmed tornadoes in 21 states and 322 tornado deaths in six states. A record number of 208 tornadoes were observed on April 27 alone and four of those have been classified as EF-5 tornadoes, the strongest category for tornadoes. About one month later on May 22, the devastating EF5 Joplin tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing 155 people. This was the deadliest single tornado to strike the US since 1947. Throughout the year there were 1897 tornadoes reported in the United States, the second highest annual total since records began in 1953. Thus, 2011 will go down as one of the worst tornado years in US history.
Many in the media have tried to connect the strong 2011 tornado season in the United States with global warming or climate change. Some predicted even more tornadoes in 2012 and beyond. However, a quick study of the historical tornado data in the United States does not indicate a trend torward more or stronger tornadoes in recent decades or years (see figure below). There is a lot of variability from year to year though. 2012 was one of the quietest tornado seasons in US history. This was followed by 2013, which had the lowest annual number of US tornadoes (943), since counting officially began in 1953. The next year, 2014, was another quiet tornado season with only 1055 tornadoes reported in the US, which is the second fewest since 2005. Last year, 2015, was in the middle of the pack with respect to the number of US tornadoes over the last 10 years. While these recent years are not proof that climate change will not result in more future tornadoes, it does cast some doubt on predictions of increasing tornado activity as a result of human-caused climate change.
Tornadoes occur in many places of the world, but no country experiences more tornadoes than the United States, which averages more than 1200 annually. Roughly 75% of all tornadoes reported worldwide occur in the United States. Canada is a distant second, with around 100 per year. Other locations that experience frequent tornado occurrences include northern Europe, western Asia, Bangladesh, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China, South Africa, and Argentina. Surprisingly, within the United States central Florida experiences the greatest number of tornadoes. However, most of the tornadoes that occur in Florida are weak and cause relatively minor damage and few deaths.
While tornadoes have occurred in every state the greatest number of strong tornadoes, those that cause extensive damage and are responsible for the largest share of deaths, are more likely to occur in the tornado belt or tornado alley of the Central Plains, which streches from central Texas northward through Oklahoma and Kansas to Nebraska and includes parts of Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. In this region warm, humid tropical surface air from the Gulf of Mexico interacts with much colder and drier air masses moving down from Canada. This area is unique on Earth. A warm ocean surface lies to the south and a large continental land mass to the north with no mountainous barriers to prevent the clash of warm, humid air masses from the south and very cold, dry air masses from the north (See figure below on left). This also explains why this region experiences high numbers of severe thunderstorms as well.
|Conditions favorable for tornadoes
in the central US
|Tornado days per year
Click on thumbnail to view
|Significant (EF-2 or stronger)
Tornado days per century
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|Violent (EF-4 or larger)
Tornado days per millennium
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About three-fourths of all tornadoes in the United States develop from March to July, although they have occured at all times of the year. Tornadoes are most frequent in the late afternoon, when the surface air is most unstable, although they have occurred at all times of day and night.
The strong winds of a tornado can destroy buildings, uproot trees, and hurl all sorts of lethal missiles into the air. Our earlier knowledge of the furious winds of a tornado came mainly from observations of the damage done and the analysis of motion pictures.
In the late 1960s, the late Dr. T. Theodore Fujita, a noted authority on tornadoes at the University of Chicago, proposed a scale (called the Fujita scale) for classifying tornadoes according to their rotational wind speed based on the damage done by the storm. The way this scale has been used is that a tornado's windspeed is estimated based on the damage caused by the tornado (after the fact). The Fujita scale has six categories for tornadoes, labeled F0, F1, F2, F3, F4, and F5, where F0 is the weakest category and F5 the strongest category. Later research has shown that the Fujita scale overestimates the actual windspeeds in tornadoes. For example, it was once believed that the strongest tornadoes produced winds of 300 mph or greater. New research estimates that the strongest tornadoes produce winds of around 225 mph.
Starting February 1, 2007, the National Weather Service revised the original Fujita scale linking tornado damage to windspeed. The new scale is called the enhanced Fujita scale (EF scale). There are still 6 categories for tornadoes (now EF-0 through EF-5). The new EF scale was developed to improve the estimation of windspeed based on the damage by better considering the structural integrity of different building types.
|Characteristic||Most Common||Extreme / Possible|
|Location on Earth||United States||Nearly Anywhere|
|Time of year (USA)||March - July||Any month|
|Time of day||4 - 6 PM||Any time|
|Size (diameter)||50 yards||> 1 mile|
|Movement-speed||30 mph||0 - 70 mph|
|Movement-direction (USA)||Toward Northeast||Any Direction|
|Length of Ground Path||< 2 miles||> 300 miles|
|Time on Ground||< 5 minutes||> 6 hours|
|Wind Speed||< 100 mph (EF0,EF1)||> 200 mph (EF5)|
Most tornado-related deaths and injuries are caused by flying debris, so the most important consideration is to shelter yourself from flying debris. If possible go to a sturdy structure. Your best bet is to move into a basement or underground storm shelter. If these are not available go to an interior closet away from windows. Cars and mobile homes are not sturdy structures and are dangerous locations to wait out a tornado. If you are caught outside, you want to get as low to the ground as possible. Your best bet is to lie flat in a ditch or depression in the ground.
Interesting and Easy to Understand article on tornado characteristics and safety from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK.
You Tube video of cars tossed around by a tornado in Alabama
Ingredients necessary for tornado formation:
1. An unstable atmosphere that is capable of producing strong thunderstorm updrafts and downdrafts.
2. A lifting force. The most common lifting forces are heating of air near the surface and weather fronts.
3. Vertical wind shear to provide rotation.
The exact sequence of events that lead to tornadoes are not fully understood. Although meteorologists can locate regions where the conditions are more favorable for tornado development (based on the ingredients above), the exact location and time cannot be predicted accurately. When favorable conditions are present over a particular region, a tornado watch may be issued.
There seem to be several mechanisms that can lead to tornado formation, none of which are fully understood. One proposed mechanism of tornado formation involves rotating thunderstorm updrafts. A simple description is provied in the following two linked pages: ( formation page 1, formation page 2). The mechanism described on the pages above is probably not the mechanism typically responsible for tornado formation in supercell thunderstorms, though. The proposed explanations for tornado formation in supercells is too complex to cover in this class.
Tornadoes come and go so quickly and are so small that predicting where and when one will hit more than 15 to 30 minutes ahead of time is not possible. The average warning time for a tornado with winds of 158 miles an hour or faster - the type that accounts for most deaths - is 18 minutes. Of course if the tornado forms right on top of you, then in some cases no warning can be given. Tornadoes can be detected with Doppler Radar and when they are, tornado warnings are issued. All weather radars work by measuring the reflected (or more correctly backscattered) radiation coming from large particles such as raindrops and hail. Doppler radars can also detect whether the reflecting particles are moving toward or away from the radar site. Thus, the rotating winds around a tornado can show up very well on Doppler Radars. Sometimes the rotation can be observed at cloud level,and a tornado warning issued, before the tornado circulation touches down on the ground.
Why is the favored region for strong tornado formation in the central plains states (often referred to as TORNADO ALLELY)? Severe tornadoes often form when three very different types of air come together in a particular way. Near the ground surface southerly or southeasterly transport warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico into the Plains.
The existence of the mid-level convective cap, which will be referred to as an inversion layer, can be another key ingredient in the formation of strong supercell thunderstorms. An inversion layer is a layer in the atmosphere where the temperature increases with increasing height. Recall that typically temperature decreases with increasing height. An inversion layer is extremely stable for rising motion. Why? Rising parcels expand and cool as they rise upward. For a rising parcel to become unstable it must become warmer than the environmental air surrounding the parcel. In a temperature inversion, the environmental air is getting warmer as you move upward, while the rising air parcel is cooling. Therefore, rising parcels will remain colder than the surrounding air when rising through a temperature inversion and will not become unstable, which is required for thunderstorm formation.
At first an inversion layer will inhibit thunderstorm formation because rising parcels from the surface will not be able to penetrate through this layer. However, as the day progresses and the atmosphere gradually warms from below the inversion layer erodes away, and surface parcels become warm enough to "break through" the old inversion layer and reach the unstable atmosphere above. All day the sun's energy was used to heat the lower atmosphere and increase the water vapor content by evaporation essentially adding more energy to the lower atmosphere. When parcels are finally able to "break through", it is like blowing the lid off of a pressure cooker. This is depicted graphically on this convection cap page from USA Today An illustrative diagram of a convective cap and how the environmental air temperature changes during the day is shown in following diagram: Click here to view the diagram.
A comprehensive web page covering the formation and occurence of tornadoes is given in the NOAA web page: Tornado Basics
Another informative guide (updated in Jan 2015), which includes answers to freuqently asked questions about tornadoes and includes links to historical tornadoes, is hosted by the US STORM PREDICTION CENTER is available fom The Online Tornado FAQ.