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Many of us have seen the kind of incredible power a tornado can wield in a movie or on TV, and a few of us have even lived through one or two of them. These intense storms possess an almost god-like presence in the media and our minds. They are dramatic, deadening columns that descend from the sky and obliterate everything in their path. But what exactly are they?
A tornado is a violently rotating column of narrow air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it’s tough to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of debris, water droplets, and dust. Tornadoes can be among the most brutal phenomena of all atmospheric storms that we as humans get the pleasure of experiencing.
We still don’t know as much about these killer twisters as we’d like, but what we have learned in the past sixty years has brought us a lot closer to hopefully—one day—being able to detect them in time to save more lives.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about tornadoes.
There are a clear set of steps that lead to a tornado:
First—even before the thunderstorm develops, winds change direction, and their speed increases at high altitudes. This creates a horizontal, invisible spinning effect in the lower atmosphere.
Then—rising air inside the thunderstorm’s updraft tilts this newly spinning air from horizontal to vertical.
Next—a two to six mile wide rotation is then contained inside the storm. This is where the most violent and intense tornadoes tend to form. After that, the cloud at the central base of the storm starts to cool down, and moist air from the downdraft converges with the warm air in the updraft, causing a rotating wall cloud.
This rapidly descending warm air is known as the RFD, or rear flank downdraft. This downdraft also focuses the developing twister’s base, causing it to siphon air from smaller and smaller areas on the ground. The updraft then intensifies and creates an area of low pressure at the surface, which then pulls the focused mesocyclone down in the form of a funnel that is then visible.
Finally—as the funnel descends, the real flank downdraft also reaches the ground, creating a large gust front that can cause serious damage a good distance from the twister. Usually, the funnel cloud begins causing quite a bit of damage on the ground within a few minutes of the downdraft actually reaching the ground. At that point, it's no longer just a funnel cloud and is officially a tornado.
Believe it or not, there are different types of tornadoes.
Supercell Tornadoes—these twisters are the ones most of us are familiar with. They're more likely to remain in contact with the ground for long periods of time than others and are more likely to be violent with intense winds exceeding 200 mph.
Landspout Tornadoes—these storms are usually much weaker than supercell tornadoes and are not associated with a mesocyclone or wall cloud. They may be observed beneath towering cumulus clouds or cumulonimbus and are the land equivalent of a waterspout tornado. They often form along the leading edge of rain-cooled downdraft air emanating from a thunderstorm—known as a gust front.
Waterspout—a waterspout is simply a tornado that is over the water. A few form from supercell storms, but many form from weak storms or rapidly growing cumulus clouds. They form over warm ocean waters, although their funnels are made of freshwater droplets condensed from water vapor due to condensation—not saltwater. Waterspouts usually dissipate upon reaching land.
Dust Devils—these usually harmless tornadoes form during hot, dry days over dry land or the desert. Generally forming in the sun during the last morning or early afternoon, these whirlwinds are triggered by light desert winds that create a plume of dust. They are not associated with thunderstorms and are usually much weaker than the weakest twister. Typically, the life cycle of a dust devil is only a few minutes or less.
Before the ‘50s, the only way to detect one of these dangerous twisters was by someone seeing it and saying, “Hey, that looks dangerous!” However, with the invention of weather radar, areas that are near a local office could get advance warning of severe weather approaching.
The first tornado warnings were issued in 1950, and by 1953, it was confirmed that hook echoes were associated with these types of storms. By recognizing these radar signatures, meteorologists can detect thunderstorms that probably will produce tornadoes from dozens of miles away.
Today, most countries that are developed have a network of weather radars, which remains the main method of reading the signs of developing twisters. In the US and a few other countries, Doppler weather radar stations are used. These critical stations measure the velocity and radial direction of the winds in a storm and can spot signs of rotation in storms from more than one-hundred miles away.
The most basic rule during a tornado is to avoid windows. An exploding window can injure you and, in some cases, even end your life.
The safest place in your home is the interior part of the basement. However, if there is no basement, go to an inside room without windows on the lowest floor. This could be a bathroom, closet, or center hallway. For extra protection, get under something sturdy such as a workbench or heavy table. If possible, cover yourself with a big blanket, mattress, or sleeping bag, and protect your noggin with anything available—including your hands.
Avoid taking shelter where there are large, heavy objects, such as refrigerators or pianos, on the floor directly above you. They could fall through the floor if the tornado strikes your house. A shower or bathtub with a fixed glass wall is something to also avoid.
When you pick a place in which to take shelter, make sure the objects around you do not have the potential to impale, crush, or cut you when loosened from their moorings.
What happens if you’re in your vehicle when a tornado strikes?
The worst place to be during a twister is in a car. Cars, trucks, and busses are easily tossed by tornado winds. Although it might be tempting, do not try to outrun a twister in your car—even if it’s a mile away. If you spot one, stop your car and get out. Do not get under your car.
If you can’t seek shelter in a suitable building, find a low-lying area like a ditch. Stay away from trees because, just like cars, they can easily become deadly projectiles. Lie down flat and use your hands to protect your head.
Tornadoes happen in a blink-of-an-eye and can cause some serious damage. Be prepared and always keep an emergency kit on hand like the ones from Stealth Angel Survival.
Stealth Angel Survival is the leader in emergency preparedness kits, supplies, and survival products. Although Stealth Angel Survival can’t tell you when a tornado is about to strike, they can help you to be prepared for when they do. Keep yourself safe and properly prepared from any natural disaster and check out Stealth Angel Survival—your life might depend on it.