Ever wondered what the inside of a tornado looks like?
We imagine getting sucked into one won’t take you to Narnia, but you’d be transported to the next state at warp speed.
Beats an Uber, don’t you think?
Jokes aside, you could be reading this when tornado season is fast approaching—in which case, you better be ready to spring into action any time.
To help you out, we talk all about tornadoes in this blog. Here, we’ll break down the difference between a tornado watch vs. warning, tell you what states are vulnerable in a tornado map, and give you tips on how to survive a tornado.
What Are Tornadoes?
Tornadoes, also known as twisters, are vertical funnels of violent winds that extend from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground. These rapidly spinning funnels have wind speeds ranging from 40 to 300 miles per hour.
Most tornadoes originate from supercell thunderstorms, the most intense type of thunderstorm. Supercells are accompanied by heavy downpours, lightning, and sometimes even hail.
These storms have a distinct rotating updraft called a mesocyclone that forms the spinning vortex that powers tornadoes.
How Are Tornadoes Formed?
Unique conditions are required for tornadogenesis, and not all supercell thunderstorms are guaranteed to spawn a tornado. One in a thousand thunderstorms becomes a supercell, and just one in five or six supercells generates a tornado.
A tornado forms when wind shear, lift, moisture, and instability are present. Tornadogenesis ensues if the following conditions are met:
- A cumulonimbus cloud produces a large thunderstorm.
- A horizontal wind shear forms due to a change in wind speed and direction at high elevations. This horizontal shear can evolve into a vertical shear that fuels rotation.
- Sources of lift in the atmosphere disturb the existing wind shear. These can include warm fronts, cold fronts, sea breezes, dry lines, and changes in terrain elevation.
- Contrasting temperatures between warm and humid air near the ground and cooler temperatures in higher altitudes create instability. This instability in the atmosphere keeps air in motion inside the budding vortex.
- Moisture from robust low-pressure systems produces an abundance of humidity, a vital ingredient to keep the thunderstorm growing.
- The funnel grows heavy due to the growing instability and humidity, prompting it to distend toward the ground.
- The funnel turns into a tornado once it hits the Earth’s surface.
Where Do Tornadoes Occur?
Tornadoes can happen anywhere in the world, but they’re most common in the United States in an area aptly called Tornado Alley.
A tornado map will show you that folks living in the Southern plains through the upper Midwest are most vulnerable to tornadoes. Tornado Alley includes portions of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and South Dakota.
Texas has the most tornado activity, with over 150 twisters each year.
Why do twisters frequent states in Tornado Alley?
Blame the cold, dry air from the surrounding mountain ranges, the hot, dry air from the Sonoran Desert, and the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. When they meet, they trigger turbulence, which results in violent storm systems.
Simply put, Tornado Alley happens to sit squarely in a geographical land mine for major thunderstorms and tornadoes, making it tough for people living in the area.
Since 1990, the United States has seen a rough average of 1,200 tornadoes yearly. 30% of all confirmed tornadoes in the U.S. since 1950 happened in Tornado Alley. This doesn’t mean violent tornadoes don’t occur outside the infamous alley. They still do.
But if you’re curious, states rarely visited by tornadoes are Alaska, Rhode Island, and Washington DC, averaging zero tornadoes per year over the last 25 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) storm database.
When Is Tornado Season?
March through July marks tornado season in the US because of ideal weather conditions for tornado formation in those months.
May sees the most tornadoes per year, while April has stronger tornadoes. Nearly 300 of the United States’ average confirmed tornadoes each year happen in May.
How Are Tornadoes Classified?
Meteorologists have used the Enhanced Fujita Scale or the EF Scale since February 1, 2007, to assign tornado ratings.
Fun fact: Some of the strongest winds on Earth are found inside tornadoes. Since scientists can’t just march inside tornadoes to gather data, much of what goes on into assigning a rating is based on the extent of observed damage. Wind speed ranges are just estimated based on damage intensity.
The EF Scale ratings are as follows:
|Zero (F0)||40-72 mph||Light Damage||Expect broken-off branches and some damage to small billboards. Best to harvest crops and keep small plants indoors to minimize damage.|
|One (F1)||73-112 mph||Moderate Damage||Mobile home communities become vulnerable. Winds are strong enough to push your bug out vehicle off the road.|
|Two (F2)||113-157 mph||Considerable Damage||Roofs are torn off and small projectiles fly out in the open. Homes made of light materials are the first to see some damage.|
|Three (F3)||158-206 mph||Severe Damage||Roofs and walls are torn off most homes. Large trees are uprooted and cars are thrown off. Retreat to your safe room.|
|Four (F4)||207-260 mph||Devastating Damage||Weak foundations are utterly destroyed. Trees, cars, and furniture are hurled several feet into the air.|
|Five (F5)||261-318 mph||Incredible Damage||S*** hits the fan. Winds are strong enough to reduce entire neighborhoods to rubble.|
Hide out in your underground bunker until the storm passes.
The deadliest tornado in the United States was the Tri-State Tornado on March 18, 1925.
Why was it called the Tri-State Tornado? You guessed it.
This F5 tornado tore through three states—Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana—and lasted three and a half hours, killing 695 people.
While most tornadoes only last about an hour or less, F4 and F5 tornadoes can have a lifespan of up to 3 hours, depending on weather conditions.
The Role Storm Chasers Play
Scientists still don’t wholly understand tornadoes due to their volatile nature. Despite technological advancements, data-gathering apparatus are easily obliterated in the path of an incoming tornado.
This makes it difficult to measure wind speeds and identify the specific conditions required for tornado formation.
Even so, a select group of people, known as storm chasers, brave these powerful vortices in the name of science. Yes, we mean those crazy dudes in twister movies that drive up to a tornado while everyone else flees on the opposite lane. They actually exist!
If you’ve ever wondered what the inside of a tornado looks like, storm chasers might be the best people to ask. Believe it or not, some amateur storm chasers do it just for the adrenaline rush.
Of course, they don’t actually charge into a tornado—they wouldn’t make it out alive—but they go just close enough to see its inception from an iffy distance.
Meanwhile, professional storm chasers do it to decipher why some supercell thunderstorms produce tornadoes and others don’t—sometimes, at the cost of their own lives.
Even with the help of modern science, over 70% of tornado warnings issued in the US today are false alarms. Understanding the mysteries behind tornadogenesis can significantly improve the accuracy of tornado warnings and give people more time to evacuate.
What Is a Tornado Watch vs. Warning?
The warning time for tornadoes has grown from fewer than 5 minutes in the 1980s to an average of 13 minutes by the late 2000s since the weather surveillance tool, Doppler radar, has been in use.
Today, the National Weather Service can alert a town 18 minutes before a tornado hits.
A tornado watch is issued when severe weather patterns have been observed near your vicinity. A tornado watch does not indicate an imminent tornado, just the possibility of one.
Ideally, this is the best time to pull out your emergency radios and keep posted for updates in case you need to bug out or move to a safe shelter.
A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has actually been sighted in nearby towns or counties. This is a good sign to evacuate immediately since the tornado could be headed your way. A tornado warning can cover several counties in the path of danger.
Don’t panic if you suddenly hear a loud blaring noise straight out of the Purge movies. This should be the tornado siren alerting people outdoors to go inside and tune in to local media for more information. A tornado siren could indicate that a twister is approaching.
If you’re ever caught outside when a tornado siren sounds, this should be the perfect time to head home, run to your nearest emergency shelter, or bug out. You’ll have better odds of escaping danger zones if you’ve got your survival bags with you.
What Are Warning Signs of a Tornado?
Even with the help of modern science, there’s no stronger foe than Mother Nature. We’ve established that tornado warnings aren’t foolproof, and while they’re helpful, we don’t recommend relying on them solely for alerts.
Nothing beats common sense when you have to make tough decisions. If the natural warning signs are there, don’t wait for authorities to issue official tornado warnings before evacuating.
Here are natural tornado warning signs to look out for if you live in a high-risk area:
- A strong thunderstorm with thunder and lightning
- A loud rumbling or whistling sound like an oncoming freight train
- An extremely dark sky with green or yellow clouds
- Persistent lowering of a cloud base
- A rotating funnel-shaped cloud
- An approaching cloud of debris
- Large hail
Again, these signs don’t guarantee an incoming tornado. Tornadoes are unpredictable forces, even for the brightest minds. Still, it’s better to act on a false alarm than fail to act at all.
You wouldn’t wanna be swept leg-first into a tornado just because you ignored that giant thundercloud.
How to Survive a Tornado
Knowing the warning signs is one thing, but what happens if you’re already in the thick of it? Here are some safety tips you should know before, during, and after a tornado hits:
Much of what goes into surviving any disaster depends on the arrangements you’ve made beforehand. Increase your odds of survival by laying out the groundwork for your plan with the following tornado safety tips.
Reinforce Your Home
If you live along Tornado Alley, it’s a good idea to consider tornado-proofing your home. Unfortunately, tornado season runs all year long for vulnerable states. If you’ve identified tornadoes as the primary risk in your area, here are some things you can do to reinforce your home:
- Trim your trees and put away those defensive plants.
- Tie down sheds and outdoor furniture when not in use.
- Brace your garage doors.
- Invest in impact-resistant windows or storm shutters.
- Keep your roof in good condition.
- Store important documents inside a fireproof and waterproof safety deposit box.
- Find the safest area in the interior of your home and build a safe room.
Build a Tornado Shelter
As opposed to hurricanes and tsunamis, if you wanna survive a tornado, the best place to be is underground.
Tornado shelters are a type of underground bunker built to withstand a tornado’s assault.
A basement is a good starter for a tornado shelter. Your tornado shelter must be a well-constructed, enclosed, and windowless space. You can commission a storm shelter company to fit your basement with proper ventilation so you don’t suffocate while hiding out during a tornado.
If you’ve got extra cash lying around, you can even have a tornado shelter with all the bells and whistles constructed just for your home. It doesn’t come cheap, though. Expect it to cost around $3,000 to $10,000.
Much like a survival bunker, fill your tornado shelter with supplies like food, drinking water, emergency radios, flashlights, a first aid kit, and extra batteries. You might be there for a while if the twister decided your house was a good place to crash.
Don’t overcomplicate things, though. The premise of a tornado shelter is simple. It’s only a temporary refuge.
Pack a Disaster Kit
Preppers have kits for all sorts of national disasters and emergencies—earthquakes, hurricanes, nuclear attacks, and yes, even tornadoes. Here are some basics you should pack in your disaster kit:
- Non-perishable food
- Extra batteries
Ultimately, a simple survival kit should suffice. It should contain the essential items you need to survive the onslaught of any calamity that comes your way.
Practice Tornado Drills
No one ever takes calamity drills seriously, but when that tornado siren begins to sing, you’ll be glad you hauled your ass out of bed for that one emergency drill last winter.
Having tornado drills at home helps shorten your decision-making process when expecting an imminent disaster. That survival mindset’s gonna come in handy when everyone else starts to panic.
For tornado drills at home, here are some things you can do to prepare:
- Set a designated safe room in your home to head into during an emergency. Fill your safe room with food provisions and blankets because rescue could take some time to arrive.
- Assign roles with your family, like who’s gonna take the dog, secure the documents, and help grandma and grandpa down the stairs.
- Time how long it takes the entire family to get inside the safe room and try to improve your intervals during each drill.
This way, no one’s wasting precious time. Dry runs benefit vulnerable family members the most, like your grandparents and little toddlers.
In the absence of a tornado drill in public spaces, take measures into your own hands by doing the following:
- Map out routes for bugging out in advance so you can skip the traffic during an incoming tornado. Expect an influx of cars on the main roads during an emergency so try to select routes that get little to no traffic for bugging out.
- Mark safe exits and possible shelters in places you frequent, like restaurants, malls, and convenience stores. When planning for a tornado, map out the fastest way to the lowest floor, bathroom, or interior hallway away from windows.
Monitor Storm Updates
Tornadoes can develop quickly, but fortunately, you have devices you can tune in to for updates on the twister’s trajectory. Your TV and mobile phone should do just fine for quick weather updates.
Keep a battery-powered communication device on hand in case the storm takes power out. And don’t forget the spare batteries.
You open your blinds and see a tornado from a distance. It doesn’t seem to be moving, though. Well, guess what? This could mean the tornado’s headed your way. If you see it moving sideways, it’s probably headed in another direction.
Time is critical. If a tornado’s already been spotted within your area, here’s what you should do:
- Take shelter underground.
We’ve established that staying underground is the safest place to be during a tornado. Head first to your basement or storm cellar and stay away from any windows.
- Wrap yourself with protective coverings.
Flying debris is a common cause of death and injury in tornadoes. Anything helps to cushion the blow of flying projectiles. Wrap yourself in thick blankets and sleeping bags, or build a fort with mattresses and thick pillows.
- Run in the opposite direction.
Again, if you see a tornado from a distance and it doesn’t seem to be moving, it’s probably headed your way. If you notice that it’s moving towards the left or right, run in the opposite direction, away from the twister’s trajectory.
While a tornado’s course isn’t always defined, heading in the opposite direction can give you more time to find a safe refuge.
- Find an enclosed, windowless area in the interior of any building.
If you aren’t home, find a sturdy concrete building to run to. Head for the lowest floor and find any enclosed space to keep yourself safe from flying debris.
- Get out of your car.
7% of tornado deaths are of people who were inside vehicles when a tornado hit. An F4 or F5 tornado can easily toss around your pickup truck like a toy car.
Being inside a car can leave you vulnerable to life-threatening injuries. This is why mobile home communities never fare well when it comes to tornadoes.
If you’re stuck in a car, get out and find shelter away from any trees, posts, or objects that can fly out and hurt you. Lie face down on the ground and cover your head with your hands.
The aftermath of any calamity can be pretty dicey. Once you’re through the thick of it, take the following steps to prevent further harm:
- Don’t leave your shelter until emergency personnel arrives or authorities declare the “all clear.”
- Check for leaking gas pipes and avoid damaged structures that could collapse.
- Make sure to wear footwear before leaving your shelter, as shards of broken glass can be everywhere.
- Look out for fallen posts, broken electric wires, and fire hazards if you’re outside.
- Remain calm and alert and stay with your loved ones while waiting for updates.
See that large spinning funnel in the distance?
It seems too far away, like there’s no way it’ll get to you.
Wrong! You blink, and next thing you know, your roof’s holding on for dear life and you’re knocked unconscious by one of your hunting trophies.
Our point is that you don’t need to live in Tornado Alley to prep for tornado season. Disasters always happen when you least expect them.
If you’re gonna live the survivalist life, you must be prepped for anything—including knowing how to survive a tornado.
Yes. Even if you live in DC!
What do you do to prepare for tornado season? Share your tips in the comments below!