10 tornado facts you might not know
Tornadoes are some of Mother Nature’s most destructive forces - swirling massive columns of air that can pack ferocious winds of up to 300 mph.
Peak tornado season starts in the spring, so it’s important to be prepared and separate the facts from the potentially deadly myths.
Tornadoes are some of Mother Nature’s most destructive forces.
Capable of flattening entire neighborhoods and taking many lives, these massive, swirling columns of air pack winds that can reach speeds of up to 300 mph.
Below are 10 facts about these dangerous natural occurrences.
1. 1925's Tri-State Tornado is considered the deadliest in U.S. history.
Ruins of the De Soto, Illinois, public school where 33 children were killed during the 1925 Tri-State Tornado. (NOAA)
On March 18, 1925, a tornado began its path of destruction in southeastern Missouri through the south of Illinois and Indiana. It covered 219 miles in three hours, according to the National Weather Service.
It killed nearly 700 people and is considered the longest-lasting tornado on record.
2. Widest recorded tornado struck on May 31, 2013.
"The EF5 El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado reached a width of about 2.6 miles [at its peak],” said John Lavin, AccuWeather's director of forensic services and a former storm warning meteorologist.
The National Weather Service reported that it broke the previous record held by a 2.5-mile-wide F4 tornado that struck Hallam, Nebraska, in May 2004.
3. Worst tornado outbreak on record: April 27, 2011.
In the midst of a severe tornado outbreak across the Deep South from April 25-28, 2011, a reported 207 tornadoes touched down on April 27 alone, according to the National Weather Service.
“It’s the fourth-worst [event], as far as deaths caused by a tornado in a single day,” Lavin said.
The tornadoes on April 27 swept through states including Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia, killing 319 people and injuring 2,839 others, the National Weather Service reported.
Four of the more than 200 tornadoes that wreaked havoc on that date were rated as powerful EF5s on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
4. Tornadoes can last from mere minutes to several hours.
This tornado demonstrates "Barber Poling": the rotational bands twisting around the tornado itself, Campo, Colorado. (Getty Images)
A tornado’s duration can be anywhere between a brief few moments to hours, although the average twister remains on the ground for about five minutes, according to NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory.
5. Tornadoes have touched down on every continent except Antarctica.
Extreme Meteorologist Reed Timmer had a close encounter with a tornado that tore through Wray, Colorado, on May 7, 2016. (Reed Timmer)
Although tornadoes aren’t limited to any specific part of the world, there's no record thus far of tornadoes happening on Earth’s southernmost continent.
A tornado occurrence in Antarctica isn’t impossible, however, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
“For tornadoes to form, there needs to be a moist, warm climate,” said Lavin. “That really cannot happen in Antarctica, considering what the sun angle is down there and how cold it is.”
6. Powerful tornadoes do occur in the northeastern U.S.
An aerial photo shows clean-up operations after a tornado swept through Niles, Ohio, on May 31, 1985. (Getty Images)
While tornadoes are not as common in the northeastern U.S. as in the Central and Southeastern states, the Northeast isn’t completely off the hook when it comes to experiencing strong tornadoes, according to Dr. Brian Tang, assistant professor at the University at Albany State University of New York.
“For example, an F5 tornado hit western Pennsylvania in 1985,” Tang said.
On May 31 of that year, a violent tornado outbreak occurred in parts of Pennsylvania; Ohio; New York; and Ontario, Canada.
Forty-three tornadoes touched down that Friday, inflicting more than $550 million in damage, Pennsylvania’s Mercer County-based newspaper, The Herald, reported.
7. Severe tornadoes in the U.S. can occur in both Tornado and Southern Tornado Alleys.
While most people are familiar with Tornado Alley, the wide stretch of tornado-prone areas in states including Texas and Oklahoma, Southern Tornado Alley is also known for deadly tornadoes across the Southeast. Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and South and North Carolina are some of the states that lie within this active tornado zone.
“It’s been a particularly bad area for tornadoes over the last 10 years,” Lavin said of the Southern Tornado Alley, which is where the infamous April 2011 outbreak occurred.
8. Spring is the peak season for tornadoes.
Tornado activity has a history of occurring mostly during the spring months, beginning in March. Tornadoes typically experience a peak occurrence between May and June, according to Live Science.
Historically, May is the most active month for tornado occurrences, with an average of 276 tornadoes occurring annually in the U.S., NOAA reported.
9. Most tornado activity occurs in the afternoon and evening.
Tornadoes can occur at any time, but they’re most likely to happen between 4 and 9 p.m., according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
“The Southeast sometimes tends to get more tornadoes at night, which is particularly dangerous,” Lavin said.
Drone images taken on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. show widespread damage to residential areas in Bowling Green, Kentucky, following a nocturnal tornado outbreak the night before. (AccuWeather/John Humphress)
10. The U.S. experiences the highest number of tornadoes.
With an average of more than 1,200 tornadoes annually, the U.S. leads with the most tornado activity in any country, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
“Commonly in the spring and summer, including the winter occasionally, we get the winds that come off the Gulf of Mexico that provide ample moisture across much of the country,” Lavin said.
Ample moisture moving across the U.S. along with weather patterns causing winds to change help provide the right ingredients for tornado occurrences, he added.
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