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Tornado Terrors

Updated: Nov 19, 2023


Tornadoes are one of the most well-known natural weather phenomena in today’s world, yet they are often misunderstood. Depicted throughout history as destructive forces of wind, misconceptions about tornadoes are inevitable.


An example we can look at is the tremendously popular tornado blockbuster, Twister. In Twister, the main characters release camera devices into tornadoes to see where objects drawn into tornadoes go. In reality, tornado winds are simply that — winds. These winds do not make objects disappear, but merely lift objects upwards.


Twister also implies that you can escape tornadoes by hiding under a bridge or sheltering in a large, open area, such as a hangar. This is especially misleading, as realistically, they provide almost no protection. With all these misconceptions about tornadoes, it is crucial to learn about these powerful forces of nature.


 

What are Tornadoes?


According to the National Weather Service, tornadoes are a “violently rotating column of air touching the ground, usually attached to the base of a thunderstorm.” Among the many different types of storms, tornadoes can be considered the most violent and unpredictable type.


Most tornadoes develop rapidly but don’t exist for much more than 15 minutes. These weather disasters can cause destruction upwards of 1 mile wide and 50 miles long in that short amount of time. They are responsible for the fatalities of an average of 80 people annually, the injuries of around 1,500 people annually, and the decimation of countless neighborhoods.


How do Tornadoes Form?


Tornadoes are formed from thunderstorms, and most commonly, supercell clouds. Cloud condensation releases heat, and this heat rises to create large updrafts. As these winds rise, they may change direction, forming a cloud base of moisture which will eventually be used as fuel for the tornado. A vortex between these large updrafts in the middle of the storm may develop to form a spinning tube of wind. This vortex then gets pulled upwards to form a mesocyclone.


Around this vortex, cold and dry sinking air wraps around the back of the mesocyclone to form a rear flank downdraft. Temperature differences within and outside the mesocyclone create large amounts of instability. The base of the mesocyclone then tightens, increasing the speed of the wind. This air funnel then moves lower and lower, becoming tighter in the process, leading the moist cloud base and the air funnel to meet. This cloud base draws the funnel to the ground, linking the funnel and the earth until the air funnel finally touches down and becomes a full tornado.


Where do Tornadoes Form? Why?


Within the United States, tornadoes form mainly in the Central Plains of North America, between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. Although tornadoes can form anywhere in the world, within the United States tornadoes most commonly form in the Central Plain states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.


Tornadoes form mainly during spring and summer due to higher quantities of thunderstorms during these seasons. Tornadoes also form more frequently in the Central Plain states because the geography of mountain ranges running North to South allows cold air from the North to converge with moist, warm air from the South. This allows more thunderstorms to form which in turn increases the risk of tornado formation.


This Central Plains area, famous for having frequent tornadoes, was dubbed Tornado Valley in 1952.


Top 3 Deadliest Tornadoes


1) Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado, Bangladesh, 1989

The Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado formed on April 26, 1989, in the Manikganj District of Bangladesh. This 1-mile wide and 50-mile-long tornado hit the slums of Bangladesh, killing 1,300 people, injuring 12,000 people, leveling 20 villages, and leaving 80,000 people homeless. This tornado was classified as a F3 on the Fujita Scale but can be considered an F4 tornado with its wind speeds of 210 to 260 mph.



2) Tri-State Tornado, United States, 1925

The Tri-State tornado, regarded as the deadliest tornado in United States history, formed on March 18, 1925. This massive F5 tornado was a part of a series of 12 tornadoes that broke out within the US on the same day, around mid-afternoon in Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Indiana, and Kansas. The Tri-State Tornado tore through 219 miles of land in Southern Illinois, Southeastern Missouri, and Southwestern Indiana. This outbreak of 12 tornadoes lasted 7 hours and claimed 751 lives. The Tri-State Tornado alone claimed 695 lives and destroyed 15,000 homes with winds of over 300 mph. The Tri-State Tornado is the second deadliest tornado globally and had the longest tornado path in global history.


3) Bangladesh, 1973

On April 17, 1973, a tornado formed in the Manikganj area of the Dhaka region of Bangladesh. This tornado, occurring 16 years before the world's deadliest Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado in the same region, had a death toll of 681 officially, but over 1,000 deaths are believed to have occurred by locals of the region.


Environmental Effects of Tornadoes


Forest Destruction

In the article, Winds of Change: Tornado and Hurricane Impacts on Louisiana Forests, by the US. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Michael K. Crosby writes, “Severe wind events have devastating impacts on forests throughout the United States. Events such as tornadoes and hurricanes can destroy standing timber, produce stresses that impact wood quality, and leave debris that leads to susceptibility to additional impacts.”


Winds from tornadoes are incredibly strong, with winds from an F1 moderate tornado already reaching 73–112 mph. Winds from a powerful F5 tornado can reach anywhere from 261–318 mph. Almost all tree trunks will snap at around 90 mph, which is within the wind speed of an F1 tornado.


Tornadoes around the world have devastating effects on the environment as they destroy acres and acres of trees. 238,000 acres of forest have been destroyed by tornadoes in Louisiana, with about 3,000 acres of forest being impacted per storm.


Environmental Pollution

In the article, How Tornadoes May Be Affecting Your Air Quality, by the American Lung Association, the editorial staff writes of the environmental pollution that occurs from the many tornadoes plaguing the U.S. With 1,028 confirmed tornadoes as of August 16, 2023, the startling amount of tornadoes raised concerns about air quality and environmental pollution.


For one, tornadoes cause heavy destruction to homes and businesses, destroying and breaking buildings and other facilities. This in itself, along with the dust and dirt thrown into the air from tornadoes, causes a significant decrease in air quality. This is especially harmful to people with asthma and other respiratory issues.


The debris in the air may eventually settle in bodies of water, subsequently decreasing the water quality for fish and other aquatic life forms. The somewhat blocked sun also has the effect of lowering the amount of sunlight given to plants. Without the full power of the sun, many plants will start to wither and may even die.


Another issue that tornadoes create is the destruction of pipelines, chemical containers, gas lines, and electric power lines. In our modern world, where chemicals and gas are used for many purposes, the leakage of large amounts of these chemicals is incredibly harmful to our environment. Toxic pollutants such as oil, asbestos, and other hazardous waste is released into the ground, contaminating groundwater and soil. These toxic pollutants may even kill organisms nearby. Dust and debris, as well as toxic pollutants, are severe causes of environmental pollution.


Impact of Climate Change on Tornado Formation


Tornadoes are formed primarily from thunderstorms in the Central Plains region because of the clash between moist, tropical Southern air and cold Northern air. Climate change may increase interactions between these two types of air and allow for more frequent formation of tornadoes.


CBS News states, “climate change seems to be shifting the concentration and range of tornadoes, pushing them into more vulnerable areas. In addition, evidence suggests there will be a more favorable environment for severe weather — and probably tornadoes — in a warmer future.” Although science hasn’t definitively found how strong climate change impacts tornado formation, there is evidence to suggest that these increases in severe, strong temperatures will allow for more frequent tornado formation in the future.


Evidence also indicates that tornadoes will be pushed to vulnerable areas more often due to climate change. We must do our part to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent these natural disasters from occurring more frequently than they already are.

 

Recap

Tornadoes are violent spinning columns of air commonly formed by thunderstorms. They are typically found in the Central Plains region of the United States, as well as other areas of the world where moist air clashes with cold air.


Tornadoes often cause death and destruction, with the highest death toll being 1,300 people during the Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado in Bangladesh. Homes, schools, and buildings are destroyed in these massive tornadoes that can span as wide as 1 mile wide and 50 miles long. With wind speeds ranging from 90–300mph, tornadoes can destroy acres upon acres of forest. Louisiana forests alone have lost 238,000 acres of trees because of tornadoes.


Fast winds drive dust and dirt into the air, which contributes to air pollution and freshwater contamination as dust settles in streams and chemicals leech into the ground. Climate change has the potential to worsen these disasters further, leaving us to wonder how terrible these twisters may become.


Thanks for reading! If you liked this blog, check out our other blogs and follow us on our social media platforms to stay tuned.






Author: Karen Wong


Editor: Charlotte Wang


References

  1. How Tornadoes May Be Affecting Your Air Quality, American Lunch Association

  2. Trees break at fixed wind speed, irrespective of size or species, physics world

  3. The Fujita Scale, National Weather Service

  4. Winds of change: tornado and hurricane impacts on Louisiana forests, USDA Forest Service

  5. How do tornadoes form? - James Spann, TED-Ed YouTube

  6. Tornadoes and climate change: How a warming world gmay affect hurricane season, CBS News

  7. The 12 Deadliest Tornadoes on Earth and What Happened, A-Z Animals

  8. Daulatpur-Saturia tornado, Wikipedia

  9. The worlds 5 Deadliest Tornadoes, ThoughtCo.

  10. What is Tornado Alley?, ServiceMasterRestore

  11. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Tornadoes, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

  12. Severe Weather 101-Tornadoes, NSSL NOAA National Service Storms Laboratory

  13. Tornadoes-National Weather Service

  14. Tornado Definition-National Weather Service

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