Tornado Facts and Fiction

As a native of northern Oklahoma, I have viewed and experienced numerous tornadoes in my lifetime. None of those experiences are forgotten, although after more than seven decades some are a bit dimmed in my memory. I will endeavor to explain the difference between the fact and the fiction of this deadly destructive force of nature based on scientific sources as well as some of my personal experiences.

1. Tornadoes and cyclones are the same. (Fiction) They are different in spite of the fact that they are often referred to by either name.

My first experience was at the tender age of six. We were traveling from Oklahoma to Kansas to visit my grandfather when a super storm formed behind us. My aunt and I were riding in the rumble seat of my uncle’s car and as the storm began to overtake us, we were pelted with huge raindrops and hail. My uncle found a gas station with a covered drive and we took refuge there until the storm passed.

We could see a huge dark cloud to our east that covered the landscape from sky to ground, but we could not see a funnel. There was a deafening roar within that cloud, and my aunt remarked that it was probably a cyclone. After the sky cleared and the storm moved on, we could see the debris trail and the twisted trees that had been stripped of their bark.

It would be several years later before the term “rain wrapped” had a meaning for me, but I know now that described the storm we witnessed.

Although the term “cyclone” was used often in those days, we know for a fact that it is not the proper definition.

While both tropical cyclones and tornadoes are atmospheric vortices, they have little in common. Tornadoes have diameters on the scale of 100s of meters and are produced from a single convective storm (i.e. a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus). A tropical cyclone, however, has a diameter on the scale of 100s of *kilometers* and is comprised of several to dozens of convective storms. Additionally, while tornadoes require substantial vertical shear of the horizontal winds (i.e. change of wind speed and/or direction with height) to provide ideal conditions for tornado genesis, tropical cyclones require very low values (less than 10 m/s [20 kt, 23 mph]) of tropospheric vertical shear in order to form and grow. These vertical shear values are indicative of the horizontal temperature fields for each phenomenon: tornadoes are produced in regions of large temperature gradient, while tropical cyclones are generated in regions of near zero horizontal temperature gradient. Tornadoes are primarily an over-land phenomena as solar heating of the land surface usually contributes toward the development of the thunderstorm that spawns the vortex (though over-water tornadoes have occurred). In contrast, tropical cyclones are purely an oceanic phenomena – they die out over-land due to a loss of a moisture source. Lastly, tropical cyclones have a lifetime that is measured in days, while tornadoes typically last on the scale of minutes.

2. Tornadoes will not jump rivers nor climb hills. (Fiction)

In May of 1955 an F5 tornado moved from Tonkawa, Ok. northward into Blackwell destroying several blocks of that city where it twice jumped the Chikaskia River then continued for another 50 miles on the ground and destroyed the city of Udall, Kansas. En route it moved over other waterways, including the Arkansas River in Cowley County, KS.

I was a teenager living in Blackwell at the time, and a few days after that deadly storm, we followed the it’s path that twisted through the countryside of Kay Co. Ok. and Sumner and Cowley counties of Kansas. It was easy to follow from the debris fields, and it was evident that it was on ground for the duration.

Tornadoes that form on land can cross bodies of water such as rivers and lakes. Tornadoes, especially the more violent ones, can also travel up and down hillsides. Thinking that your location is protected by a river or ridge could be dangerously wrong.

3. Tornadoes cause houses to explode from changes in air pressure so you should open windows to balance the pressure. (Fiction)

When the tornado hit Blackwell, OK. in 1955 most residents had their windows open because it was a warm night. Nevertheless, the east side of the city was devastated and dozens of houses destroyed or severely damaged.

Homes are damaged by strong winds, not air pressure changes. The force of a tornado can rip through a structure, whether the windows are open or not..

4. Tornadoes form mostly in the Spring and early Summer months, but they sometimes appear in cold weather and are capable of damage even in the winter. (Fact)

I witnessed a tornado in December of 1957 that formed across the field from our home. I watched as it developed the funnel that touched down and destroyed a small barn, then disappeared back into the clouds only to touch down again and destroy a home a few blocks north. After damaging a few other homes, it disappeared back into the clouds.

source: Q: I was watching the news recently and heard something about cold-weather tornadoes. Is there such a thing and what exactly causes one?
Answered by: Harold Brooks, research meteorologist, NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, Norman, Okla.
Significant tornadoes have been observed with temperatures near freezing (for example, the Altus, Okla., tornado of 22 February 1975), but they are rare and almost certainly involve processes going on above the surface layer leading to surface rotation.

5. The best place to be in case of a tornado is a protected interior room on the lowest floor of the building, as far as possible from exterior walls and windows. (Fact and Fiction) source:

The BEST place is an underground storm shelter or a specially built safe room. In the event you are at home and do not have access to either of these, the statement above is true.

6. If you are caught on the highway seek an overpass as shelter. (Fiction)

Many people mistakenly think that a highway overpass provides safety from a tornado.
In reality, an overpass may be one of the worst places to seek shelter from a tornado. Seeking shelter under an overpass puts you at greater risk of being killed or seriously injured by flying debris from the powerful tornadic winds.

The idea that overpasses offer safety probably began in 1991, when a television news crew and some citizens rode out a very weak tornado under an overpass along the Kansas Turnpike. The resulting video continues to be seen by millions, and appears to have fostered the idea that overpasses are preferred sources of shelter, and should be sought out by those in the path of a tornado. In addition, news magazine photographs of people huddled under an overpass with an approaching tornado imply that this is the correct safety procedure. Nothing can be further from the truth!

7. Tornadoes can be a mile or more in width. (Fact)

Wedge shaped, or stove-pipe tornadoes can be at least a mile wide. We have all seen videos of them on the news. These films, captured mostly by storm chasers leave us all with a feeling of awe and wonder. How can anything so beautiful be so fiercely destructive and deadly?

source: @ Gene Moore
This tornado lacks the typical funnel or classic tornadic appearance. (these)Huge funnels are often a mile wide and sometimes unrecognizable at close range as a tornado. They lack the classic narrow funnel appearance, but tend to appear as a boiling wall of fog approaching from out of nowhere, since they favor a position close to the rain wall. Generally the rain stops and the tornado makes a rapid appearance.

8. Downward bulging clouds mean tornadoes are on the way. (Fiction)

source: com
Not necessarily!. It could be the case, especially with those that show evidence of a rotating motion. But many of these clouds are not associated with tornadoes and may be harmless.

There are a number of precautions you can and should take to protect yourself and your loved ones when the possibility of theses storms are in the forecast.

First of all, have a plan beforehand. In case you and your loved ones are in different places, set a designated area where you will all meet after the fact. Also discuss the safe places at home, school, and at work; and inform your family where you will seek shelter. Discuss this plan with your family, baby sitter, neighbors, and the teachers at your children’s school.

Do not try to get home or to your children after the warning has been issued. Trust the schools or the baby-sitter to follow your pre-storm instructions.

Listen to your local radio or television stations for warnings and updates. If your city has a warning system, follow the directions associated with that procedure. If you have a storm shelter or safe room be sure to register that fact with your city’s emergency operations center. This will enable emergency workers to locate you under any debris.

Mostly keep an eye on the sky. Dark clouds with a green tint; wall clouds; large hail; a sudden eerie quiet followed by a loud roar may indicate that a tornado is near. Do not, under any circumstances, rush outside and get into the car for a better look at the funnel. The cat is not the only being killed by curiosity!