Tornadoes: How to Stay Safe

Learn about tornadoes, one of the most mesmerizing weather phenomena and tips for staying safe when it strikes.

| May/June 2016

For many of us, our first image of a tornado is that of the one chasing Dorothy and Toto in the classic film “The Wizard of Oz.” The movie made an indelible impression on many of us. Tornadoes could lift up a house and carry it off to faraway places, like Munchkinland.

Call it a twister, a cyclone, or by its actual name – a tornado – this weather phenomenon is one of, if not the most, powerful storms nature can produce. Wind speeds as high as 300 mph can destroy everything in its path. In a typical year, more than a thousand tornadoes are recorded in the United States. They have occurred in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, and in every month of the year, at any time of day.

Now that I have your attention, allow me to put the tornado risk into perspective. The majority of these tornadoes are fairly weak, and they do little if any damage at all. Over a lifetime, chances are these tornadoes will miss you, but you can help ensure your safety by following some of the safety tips I’ll be giving you – and by never setting foot in Oklahoma or Kansas again. (Just kidding.)

Inside the vortex

What exactly is a tornado? It’s a spinning column of air, and it can spin very fast. The strongest winds ever measured in a tornado were about 300 mph. (The strongest hurricane winds are just over 200 mph.) Fortunately, tornadoes anywhere near that strength are very rare – less than 1 percent. Most tornadoes have winds under 100 mph.

If a tornado is made of air, how come you can see it? What you’re seeing is called the condensation funnel. It’s made up of water droplets. Besides spinning around, the air is also being lifted, and the lower part of the funnel picks up stuff from the ground – dirt, debris, cars, cows and more (yes, cows have been sighted in tornadoes, but not sharks).

Tornadoes are a type of cyclone. Cyclone in weather-talk just means a low-pressure area with winds rotating around it. Hurricanes are another type of cyclone, as are winter storms. Tornadoes are much smaller though. Most are only a few hundred feet across. The biggest and strongest can be more than a mile wide. From the few measurements we have, as few instruments survive a tornado, the pressure created in a strong tornado can measure about 27 inches on your home barometer. It was once believed that houses exploded due to this great drop in pressure, and it was recommended that you open your windows when a tornado approached. This has since been proven wrong. Before the pressure drops enough to inflict that type of damage, your house is already sustaining winds over 100 mph, which will take care of your windows for you. You should just be seeking shelter.

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