Tornadoes: Nature's Most Violent Storm

Posted: August 11, 2015, 9:51 pm by spatrick

Tornadoes are one of the most awe-inspiring, yet destructive weather phenomena on the planet. They come in all shapes, sizes, and strengths, and are spawned mainly from rotating thunderstorms called supercells. But how exactly do these beasts come about, and how are they categorized? It is a little more complex than the commonly heard explanation "warm air from the Gulf meets cool air from Canada"...read on to learn more.

It's true that a favorable environment for a tornadic supercell could be at the triple point where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meets cold air from Canada and dry air from the Rocky Mountains; however, not all thunderstorms in this environment will necessarily produce a tornado. In the same respect, other types of environments may lead to tornado. After all, tornados have touched down in the Northeast, away from the nearly ideal conditions common over the Great Plains, fittingly named "Tornado Alley." So how do rotating thunderstorms produce a tornado? While it's still not clearly understood in the meteorological community and scientists prominently research this topic even today, there are many accepted theories. One such theory discusses that as opposing winds in a rotating thunderstorm move at different speeds, some can get caught in the storm's updraft, tilting it vertically. The vertical updraft can then become a funnel cloud if it stretches downward out of the storm, it may eventually reach the ground and officially become a tornado.

Tornadoes are now ranked according to the Enhanced Fujita scale, in honor of scientist Ted Fujita. This is an upgrade to the original Fujita scale which now estimates the wind speeds based on the damages. It's important to note that a tornado is rated on the Enhance Fujita scale only after a storm survey of the damages is complete.

Some interesting tornadoes stats in the United States include the following:

  • The widest funnel on record occurred on May 31st, 2013 in El Reno, Oklahoma. It grew to a whopping 2.6 miles!
  • The longest path carved by a single tornado occurred on March 18th, 1925. An estimated path length was found to be 151 - 235 miles. The outbreak was part of the deadliest tornado outbreak in United States history.
  • The highest winds recorded from a tornado occured on May 3, 1999 in Bridge Creek and Moore, Oklahoma. Peak estimated winds were 301 mph.
  • The most tornadoes in a 24-hour period occured on April 27th, 2011 at 211 tornadoes

Tornado spotted north of Abbott, NM on June 6, 2014, taken by meteorologist Sherilyn Graham. This tornado was not officially ranked by the National Weather Service. Typically, when there are confirmed tornadoes with no reported damage, such as this one in an open field, they are rated EF0.

Director of Forensic and Data Services / Lead Meteorologist
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