80 Frequently Asked Questions About Tornadoes and Their Answers

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a wind storm of this kind is precisely defined as, "A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it is hard to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, dust, and debris. Tornadoes can be among the most violent phenomena of all atmospheric storms we experience."

This is a difficult question to answer. Even the experts don't know for sure how storms like these form. When asked about it, NSSL scientists responded with the following quote, "The truth is that we don't fully understand. The most destructive tornadoes occur from supercells, which are rotating thunderstorms with a well-defined radar circulation called a mesocyclone. (Supercells can also produce damaging hail, severe non-tornadic winds, frequent lightning, and flash floods.) Tornado formation is believed to be dictated mainly by things which happen on the storm scale, in and around the mesocyclone. Recent theories and results from the VORTEX2 program suggest that once a mesocyclone is underway, tornado development is related to the temperature differences across the edge of downdraft air wrapping around the mesocyclone."

Tornadic events occur during all seasons. But there is a peak period where such storms are most common, considered "tornado season." That peak begins in March and lasts through June.

The alley refers to geography in the U.S. that is more prone to tornadic events than other parts of the United States. This region includes parts of South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Texas.


A warning is a severe weather warning. Such a warning is issued by regional offices of weather forecasting agencies worldwide to alert the public when a tornadic event has been sighted or indicated by weather radar within the parent thunderstorm. A warning means a tornadic event has been spotted and that those in the region near the event should take cover.

As one can imagine, a tornado will have similar sounds to a thunderstorm, often a constant rumble or low, deafening roar. Tornadic events can also sound like a waterfall, whooshing air, or a nearby jet engine.

A watch is one step down from a warning. To put it simply, a watch is a cautionary statement announced by weather monitoring services to indicate that conditions for severe wind storms are favorable but not necessarily imminent.

A watch is issued by the national NOAA Storm prediction Center when it notices conditions prone to generating severe wind storms. The correct precautions to take when a watch is in place are preparing for severe weather and staying tuned to an NOAA Weather Radio until the watch is removed. A warning is issued by a local NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office. A warning means that weather experts have spotted a legitimate tornadic event, and there is a serious threat to those in the path of the storm. A warning indicates that you must act now to find safe shelter.

Here are three tips on what to do in a tornadic storm:

1). Be prepared. Have fresh batteries on hand and a battery-operated TV and radio. Make sure you have a plan for where you're going to shelter if and when a storm strikes. Make sure you take into account your family members, people with special needs, and your pets. Have an emergency kit on hand that includes water, food, and medical supplies.

2). Keep an eye on weather conditions. Look for factors like a dark or green-colored sky, a large, dark, low-lying cloud, large hail, or a roar that sounds like a freight train. If you notice these conditions, take cover immediately.

3). Know where to shelter. This is the most important factor in severe storm preparedness. Quoting the CDC directly, "Go to the basement or an inside room without windows on the lowest floor (bathroom, closet, center hallway). If possible, avoid sheltering in a room with windows. For added protection get under something sturdy (a heavy table or workbench). Cover your body with a blanket, sleeping bag or mattress. Protect your head with anything available. Do not stay in a mobile home."

The most important thing to remember when a severe storm strikes is to take cover and find shelter. Falling and flying debris cause the most deaths and injuries during a tornado, so seeking shelter must be the primary objective when that twister comes for a visit!

A major wind and weather event can cause immense damage to structures, trees, humans, and animals; tornadic events are a natural disaster that can happen suddenly. For those who live in geographic regions prone to such storms, it's important to understand what these weather events are, how they come about, how to plan for them, and what to do when such a storm touches down near you. Such storms can appear as a traditional funnel shape that most people are used to or appear in a slender rope-like form. Some have a churning, smoky look to them, and others contain "multiple vortices," which are small, individual tornadoes rotating around a common center.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has helped us determine rapid responses for serious wind storms. Here are some tips:

  • Prepare an emergency plan and put together an emergency kit. Be sure to have a first aid kit on hand.
  • Stay aware of weather conditions, especially if you live in a storm-prone area.
  • Know the best places to shelter both indoors and outdoors.
  • Unlike tsunamis and hurricanes, which one would usually evacuate from, it is not a good idea to try and outrun a tornado. If one is coming your way, seek shelter immediately!

While these storms share similarities and can sometimes occur in tandem with each other, there are distinct differences between the two. Quoting NASA, "The most obvious difference between tornadoes and hurricanes is that they have drastically different scales. They form under different circumstances and have different impacts on the environment. Tornadoes are 'small-scale circulations', the largest observed horizontal dimensions in the most severe cases being on the order of 1 to 1.5 miles. They most often form in association with severe thunderstorms which develop in the high wind-shear environment of the Central Plains during spring and early summer, when the large-scale wind flow provides favorable conditions for the sometimes violent clash between the moist warm air from the Gulf of Mexico with the cold dry continental air coming from the northwest. Hurricanes, on the other hand, are large-scale circulations with horizontal dimensions from 60 to well over 1000 miles in diameter."

Seek shelter immediately. This is the most important thing to do during a tornadic event. Quoting the CDC, "Go to the basement or an inside room without windows on the lowest floor (bathroom, closet, center hallway). If possible, avoid sheltering in a room with windows. For added protection get under something sturdy (a heavy table or workbench). Cover your body with a blanket, sleeping bag, or mattress. Protect your head with anything available. Do not stay in a mobile home."

The region known as Tornado Alley includes parts of South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Tornadic events are measured based on the speed of their winds, using the Fujita Scale. And like many natural disasters, the strength of a storm is measured by the damage it causes. Tornadic storms can do immense damage, as the force of wind carried through a tornadic event can be so strong that it can lift objects off the ground, including people, animals, cars, machinery, buildings, and houses. From the damage caused by a tornado, experts can determine the wind speeds of that storm. The Enhanced Fujita Scale ranks tornadic events in a way not unlike the CAT system that ranks hurricanes. An F0 tornado will have a 3-second gust of 45 to 78 mph; an F1 will gust from 79 to 117 mph, F2 at 118 to 161, F3 at 162 to 209 mph, F4 at 210 to 261 mph, and an F5 storm can reach wind speeds of 262 to 317 mph.

A fire tornado is most frequently associated with a tornado that occurs in a region that is experiencing a wildfire. The result can be a literal tornadic storm made of fire. The technical term for a fire tornado is a fire whirl or a “pyrogenetic tornado.” According to one resource, wildfires can cause tornadoes. Quoting one database, "A wildfire – or multiple wildfires in the same area – can cause a firestorm. A firestorm occurs when heat from a wildfire creates its own wind system. This phenomenon can lead to very strange weather effects."

Take shelter! Quoting the CDC's quick-advice warning on tornadoes, "Go to the basement or an inside room without windows on the lowest floor (bathroom, closet, center hallway). If possible, avoid sheltering in a room with windows. For added protection get under something sturdy (a heavy table or workbench). Cover your body with a blanket, sleeping bag or mattress. Protect your head with anything available. Do not stay in a mobile home."

May and June are the peak tornado months in most states that comprise tornado alley.

These are unique storm events that require certain weather conditions for them to occur. According to National Geographic, "Tornadoes form when warm, humid air collides with cold, dry air. The denser cold air is pushed over the warm air, usually producing thunderstorms. The warm air rises through the colder air, causing an updraft. When it touches the ground, it becomes a tornado."

Wind speeds for such storms occur at an average of 30 miles per hour. However, tornadoes can easily approach wind speeds of 70 miles per hour or more. Furthermore, tornado winds gust, with gusts being measured up to 200 miles per hour or more.

May and June are the peak tornado months in most states that reside within the alley.

The average tornadic event is about 660 feet wide and moves across the ground at about 30 miles per hour. Most tornadoes travel about five or six miles before dying out. However, incredibly destructive storms can be much wider, move as fast as 300 miles per hour, and last much longer than just a few minutes. From records, "The most 'extreme' tornado in recorded history was the Tri-State Tornado, which spread through parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. It is considered an F5 on the Fujita Scale, even though tornadoes were not ranked on any scale at the time. It holds records for longest path length at 219 miles (352 km), longest duration at about 3½ hours, and fastest forward speed for a significant tornado at 73 mph (117 km/h) anywhere on Earth. In addition, it is the deadliest single tornado in United States history with 695 fatalities. It was also the third-costliest tornado in history at the time, but has been surpassed by several others non-normalized. When costs are normalized for wealth and inflation, it still ranks third today."

Such storms have a very distinct look on radar equipment. According to one weather resource, "Meteorologists look for low CC values within a tornado's debris ball surrounded by higher values. This often appears as a small blue circle within a larger red area. If the radar shows a strong area of rotation and a debris ball in the same area, it is a strong signature that there is a tornado occurring."

Only a few people have captured footage of the inside of a tornadic storm (due to the extreme and inherent danger of being anywhere near such a storm). But the inside of such a storm looks much like a funnel, with a cylindrical wall of debris, dirt, sand, and other items swirling around in a circle. If it's a sunny day, the sky can often be seen at the top of the cylinder. This is rarer, however, as such storms usually occur during a thunderstorm and often at night.

A waterspout. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "Waterspouts fall into two categories: fair weather waterspouts and tornadic waterspouts. Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water, or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms, and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning."

While such storms can occur at any point of the year, there is a season for them, especially in Kansas, the heart of the alley. The two months where such storms are most likely to occur in Kansas are May and June.

Where to go during a storm event like this depends quite a bit on where you are when the storm hits. For example, if you are in your home when the storm hits, the basement is the best spot because it is underground. However, if you don't have a basement where you live, the bathroom is the best place to go because it is normally in the interior and has no windows. If that does not work, a closet or a hallway in the center of your home is a good spot to take cover.

Another tip to remember during a serious, tornadic storm event is to not go higher up in your home. Stay on the ground floor.

Clouds are often the first sign of an impending tornadic event. While different types of clouds can often be used as predictors for a wide range of weather events, only certain clouds tend to precede tornadoes. These include cumulonimbus clouds, wall clouds, and funnel clouds.

Green sky is often an indicator of an impending tornadic event. But this is not the only predictor, and such severe weather events can occur with no green in the sky whatsoever.

El Reno, a massive storm that swept through Oklahoma in 2013, took the world record for the biggest tornadic event ever recorded. It was an EF-5 storm, with a maximum width of 2.6 miles and a path length of 16.2 miles. It swept across the ground for 40 minutes, with wind speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. Nine people died in this storm, including three storm chasers.

Though these storms are similar, there are critical differences. Cyclones tend to form over the water in the South Pacific, whereas tornadic storms tend to form over land. Cyclones are much larger yet less frequent storms than tornadoes. Cyclones almost always start over the water and then sometimes move towards land. In contrast, tornadoes almost always start over land and stay on land (except for tornadic waterspouts, a unique phenomenon).

While a tornadic storm moves at about 30-70 miles per hour across the ground, the winds of the storm itself can often exceed 200 miles per hour.

A shelter is, simply, a super-strong, super safe room inside your home. And while the cost of one can run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 when purchasing a pre-made product, building one yourself can be a significantly cheaper option. Furthermore, several websites offer free information and downloadable guides on how to build a shelter.

Here are a few signs to look for that may indicate a severe, tornadic storm is inbound:

  • A dark, often greenish, sky, sometimes bright green.
  • A wall of clouds or an approaching cloud of debris moving towards you.
  • Large hail, particularly occurring in the absence of rain.
  • The wind may die down, and the air may become very still, "The calm before the storm."
  • You may hear a roar similar to a freight train or jet engine.
  • An approaching cloud of debris, even if a funnel is not yet visible.

This is a scary, frightening moment. Quoting the NOAA, "There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible. If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible – out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris."

Most storms of this kind (defined by the funnel cloud's actual touchdown to the ground) last for only ten minutes, though the immense winds and the funnel clouds in the air may begin long before the storm forms and continue to go on long after the storm recedes. The danger does not begin and end with the formation and recession of the storm itself. The storm that creates the tornado is dangerous before the storm forms and long after the storm recedes.

If the winds are strong enough, a severe tornadic event can pick up a car.

Yes! Storms like these often make noise. People near a tornado storm have said that it sounds a lot like a freight train, a jet engine, or a loud, whooshing sound.

This depends entirely on the strength of the storm. As Tom Skilling, a weather expert, said, "When a tornado threatens, there is no absolutely safe place in a house, other than a specifically designed tornado-proof 'safe room.' However, there are degrees of safety below absolute security. A crawl space is a possibly safe place, depending on the type of construction of the house. The crawl space of a house built upon a cinder block or wooden foundation will offer less protection than a similarly constructed house on a concrete foundation. However, especially intense tornadoes, though they occur rarely, have the capability to totally obliterate houses constructed on crawl spaces. Also, one must consider the location in a crawl space: ideally away from heavy appliances or furniture in the house above the crawl space."

These storms are deadly and can cause massive destruction to infrastructure, buildings, roads, power lines, water utilities, etc. And they're dangerous to human life. About 80 people die from tornadoes in the U.S. each year, and these storms cause about 1,500 injuries each year.

The word "tornado" means "A mobile, destructive vortex of violently rotating winds having the appearance of a funnel-shaped cloud and advancing beneath a large storm system." The derivation of the word is, "Mid 16th century (denoting a violent thunderstorm of the tropical Atlantic Ocean): perhaps an alteration of Spanish 'tronada' 'thunderstorm' (from tronar 'to thunder') by association with Spanish tornar 'to turn'."

They are essentially the same thing. There are, however, different types of storms that many people think may or may not be tornadic events. For example, a funnel cloud is usually what precipitates a tornado, as a funnel cloud is a rotating column of air that is not yet in contact with the ground. Once it comes into contact with the ground, it becomes a tornado.

There are two different types of speeds to consider, the speed of movement of the storm across the ground and the speed of the wind within the storm. The ground speed of the storm can range anywhere from 30 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour. The storm's wind speed can range anywhere from 70 miles per hour to over 200 miles per hour.

May through June is the prime season for such storms.

May through June is the prime season for such storms.

One would think so, given that tornadic events are often associated with thunderstorms. But in fact, rain seldom occurs in or near an event. According to the Disaster Center, "Tornadoes are associated with a powerful updraft, so rain does not fall in or next to a tornado. Very large hail, however, does fall in the immediate area of the tornado. In humid environments, rain often tends to wrap around the tornado, being pulled from the main precipitation area around the outside of the rotating updraft. The rain could make it difficult to see the tornado."

Only four tornadic events have been reported in Alaska since 1950.

The energy of a tornadic event comes from the updraft of the twisting air. When that updraft recedes, the storm loses energy and dies down.

Very far, depending on conditions. Tornadic events are unpredictable because of the complex, ever-changing, and volatile nature of the thunderstorms that help create tornadoes. A storm can form very quickly and with almost no warning. That's why spotters look for the environmental conditions within the atmosphere that can cause one to occur. Then, the spotters issue watches when those conditions develop and warnings when a tornado storm does occur. As for how far such a storm can travel, these storms can travel well over one hundred miles if the conditions are right.

You cannot stop a tornadic storm. The best approach to a storm such as this is to take cover in a sturdy structure.

The NOAA Ocean Service defines a waterspout as such: "Tornadic waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water, or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms, and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning."

No. This is an old myth. People used to think that opening the windows "equalized the pressure" in the house. But not only is this sketchy science at best, taking time to open windows when a tornadic weather event is bearing down on you is a waste of time. Also, you may be injured by flying glass trying to do it. And if the tornado hits your home, it will most likely blast the windows open anyway.

A wedge tornado is a tornadic event where the storm cell looks wider from one side to the next than the distance from the ground to the cloud base that the tornado is coming from.

An F5 tornadic event has the highest winds of any storm. The winds of an F5 tend to range from 200 miles per hour to 318 miles per hour or more. This type of storm can pull houses off of their foundations.

Here's a quick look at what you should do after a tornado:

  • Give first aid when and where it is appropriate. Don't try to move the seriously injured unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Call for help as soon as possible.
  • If they are available and there is a signal, turn on the radio or television to get the latest emergency information.
  • Do not go into damaged buildings. Return home only when authorities say it is safe. Damage can still occur after a major storm event passes.
  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, or gasoline, or other flammable liquids immediately. Run damage control on your home and try to prevent further damage from occurring.

While tornado storms can occur any time of the year in Alabama, the "season," as it were, is from May to June.

While such storms occur all across Planet Earth, the United States has by far the most storms of this kind. And while Indigenous cultures have been observing tornadoes for thousands of years, the first recording of a Euro-American spotting a tornado was in 1643, from the journal entry of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop.

The green color is caused by water droplets suspended in the sky by the storm cell. The droplets reflect sunlight, which results in radiation of green frequencies.

No. Even a slow-moving tornado still moves at about 30 miles per hour. If you encounter a storm while you're out and about on foot, try to run perpendicular to the storm. If the storm is headed straight for you, try to find a low-lying place to lie down flat on the ground, like a ditch or dry creek bed.

Yes, California averages about a dozen or so tornadic events per year. Most of them are relatively weak, rarely causing serious damage, harm, or property destruction.

A bathtub can be safe during a tornadic event, but only if the bathroom is windowless. Being near windows during such a storm event is very dangerous. Take shelter in a bathtub, but only if the bathtub is located near the center of the home, with no windows, and preferably on the ground floor.

EF stands for "Enhanced Fujita Scale." From the National Weather Service, "The Enhanced Fujita Scale or EF Scale, which became operational on February 1, 2007, is used to assign a tornado a 'rating' based on estimated wind speeds and related damage. When tornado-related damage is surveyed, it is compared to a list of Damage Indicators (DIs) and Degrees of Damage (DoD) which help estimate better the range of wind speeds the tornado likely produced. From that, a rating (from EF0 to EF5) is assigned."

Most experts agree that being sucked into a tornado would result in probable death. The biggest danger of this is not from falling out of the tornado but from being impaled by the debris moving through the storm. Survivors of such an event have compared being picked up by a tornado to being dragged on concrete.

Tornado season generally refers to May to June for Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. On the Gulf Coast, tornado season occurs earlier in the spring. The tornado season is in June or July in the northern Plains and upper Midwest (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota). However, it's important to remember that tornados can occur at any time of the year and that they can occur during the day or night.

That depends on the force, size, and speed of the storm. But most tornadic events can be heard from one to two miles away.

A good, strong tornado shelter could cost as much as $10,000. It's a worthwhile investment, though, and here's why. Unlike other natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis, tornadoes can occur virtually anywhere and everywhere. They've been recorded on all continents and in almost all countries. The countries that are most likely to experience such storms are:

  • The United States (This country experiences the most tornadoes on Planet Earth by far).
  • Italy
  • France
  • Spain
  • India
  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Uruguay
  • Australia
  • Japan
  • China
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

A supercell thunderstorm is the type of cloud formation that will likely precede a tornadic event. Another type of cloud formation, called a funnel cloud, can often act as a precursor to a storm.

A landspout is simply a type of tornadic event that is not associated with a mesocyclone (the supercell thunderstorm most often associated with tornadoes). Landspouts are usually not as strong or forceful as other tornadic events, and they do not last as long.

The funnel that makes its way to the ground is called a condensation funnel. It becomes a tornadic event once it makes contact with the ground.

Such a storm event is made out of cool air fed by a jet stream, plus a strong wind band in the atmosphere. Water droplets from a supercell thunderstorm create moist conditions in the air, which forms the funnel cloud.

Coincidentally, there is no place on Planet Earth that is as likely to experience tornadoes as the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley regions of the United States. While other "tornado-prone" countries may only experience about 20 tornadoes every year, the United States records about 1,200 tornadoes each year. While violent tornadoes have been reported in all fifty states, they are most common in "Tornado Alley," the central region of the U.S. from Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains. The Southeast, South, Midwest, Northern Plains, and Central Plains regions of the U.S. are all well within Tornado Alley.

Technically, there is no such thing as an F6 tornado. While the EF scale does go all the way up to 12, tornadoes are not supposed to reach F6, and they have not yet done so. At least none that have been recorded.

Most modern-day cell phones offer downloadable apps that can offer real-time weather warnings and alerts.

Traumatic injuries, particularly head injuries, are the leading cause of death during tornadoes.

This is the most common type of tornadic event. Such an event refers to a tornado that gathers its strength from a thunderstorm supercell. This is also the most destructive type of tornado.

Avoid windows! Go to the lowest floor if you have time to do so, and find a small, centrally located room to shelter in. Crouch down, as low as possible, facing down, and cover your head with your hands.

The center of the ground floor, away from windows, is the safest place to be during a tornadic event if no tornado shelter is available.

It's possible. Scientists have determined that the air pressure inside a tornado is such that the oxygen is often sucked out of the eye of the tornado.

While sizes of tornadic events do vary quite a bit, the smallest widths are usually recorded at ten yards or so (thirty feet). They can be even smaller than that, but it is rare. Most tornadoes are much larger, about 500 to 700 feet in diameter.