Tornadoes have been a source of fear for humans since the beginning of time. Indeed, this strange and powerful natural phenomenon has the potential to wreak destruction on a massive scale – and to leave hundreds dead or injured. However, as an extraordinary manifestation of extreme weather, they are also a subject of fascination. Here are some truly mind-boggling facts about the largest tornadoes to have ever been seen.
20. Tornadoes emerge from massive thunderstorms
To create a scarily large tornado, the first thing that’s needed is a giant thunderstorm. The very largest thunderstorms actually have their own term – the supercell. Supercells are highly organized thunderstorms characterized by extreme rainfall, prolific lightening and gale-force winds. When the supercell sinks below the clouds it drags in colder air, creating the familiar tornado tower and sucking up air from the surface below it.
19. Tornadoes often give off an advance warning
Sometimes supercells will give a telltale signature which meteorologists can read on radar. This is called the “hook echo” and it’s distinctive enough that even non-scientists can see it on a clear radar printout. The hook is formed by powerful counter-clockwise winds which drive rain in a circle around the air that’s being sucked up from the ground. Although not all hook echoes forewarn of a dangerous tornado, they are certainly something to watch out for.
18. Tornadoes can travel tremendous distances
A tornado lasting for more than two hours hit Chetek in Wisconsin in May 2017. Its effects were devastating, with one person killed and 25 injured. The destructive twister traveled for a mind-boggling 83 miles, the longest tornado journey seen in the state since records began in 1950. And although it’s of little comfort to those who lost their homes, it could have been far worse. Thankfully, most of the tornado’s trail passed over sparsely populated areas.
17. The menace of multiple-vortex tornados
As if a single tornado wasn’t enough to scare the living daylights out of anyone, what about the prospect of several all at once? It’s rare, but it can happen. The harrowing event occurs when a number of twisters form inside the main tornado. Multiple vortices in a tornado can increase its wind speed by as much as 100 mph, making these twisters especially destructive.
16. Looking into the eye of the storm
In 1928 farmer Will Keller saw three twisters approaching his homestead in Missouri. He got his family into their storm shelter, but then was apparently mesmerized by the tornados. The Kansas Historical Society records his memory. “I looked up and to my astonishment I saw right up into the heart of the tornado. There was a circular opening in the center of the funnel, about 50 to 100 feet in diameter, and extending straight upward for a distance of at least one half mile…”
15. The deadliest tornado in the U.S.
It was a Wednesday in March 1925 when the most lethal tornado ever recorded in U.S. history carved a path of destruction across southern and midwestern states. During its journey of up to 235 miles across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, what became known as the Tri-State Tornado resulted in the tragic deaths of 695 people.
14. The most tragic tornado on Earth
The Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado, which hit Bangladesh in 1989, holds the dubious distinction of being the twister that caused the most deaths in recorded history. Such was its devastation that accurate counts of the dead were difficult if not impossible to record. But the final estimate of 1,300 fatalities make this the worst tornado anywhere in the world.
13. The world’s widest tornado
The El Reno Tornado that struck central Oklahoma in May 2013 has been noted as the widest twister for which records exist. At the height of its intensity, it was measured as being 2.6 miles across. As it mostly passed over rural rather than built-up areas, damage and casualties were relatively light. Nevertheless eight people lost their lives – four of whom were actually storm chasers.
12. The most U.S. tornadoes in one day
What came to be called the 2011 Super Outbreak saw an astonishing total of 362 tornadoes forming, with 218 of those happening over the course of just one April day. That’s the most ever recorded during one 24-hour period. Overall this barrage of tornadoes – almost Biblical in its scale – killed 324 people. The outbreak also contributed to April 2011 producing the record for the number of twisters in one month: 772.
11. The U.S. city with most tornadoes
Oklahoma City holds the unenviable record for the most tornadoes to cross it’s boundaries. Texas A&M University climatologist Brent McRoberts told the Dallas News, “Oklahoma City is almost in a class by itself when it comes to tornado activity… According to the local National Weather Service office, the capital of Oklahoma has been hit more than 140 times since records began in the early 1890s.”
10. The Wizard of Oz tornado
Perhaps the best known tornado in popular culture is the one that whisks Dorothy off to a fantastical world in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. The film was based on L. Frank Baum’s novel, and his decision to set his story in Kansas was no accident. Baum had worked as a journalist in South Dakota and had read about the twin tornados of 1879 that flattened the city of Irving, Kansas, leaving 19 dead.
9. The most costly U.S. tornado
In 1896 a massive tornado ripped into the city of St. Louis in Missouri causing devastating damage. At the time the cost of the destruction was estimated at $10 million – a sum in the region of $4.35 billion in today’s money. Tragically the tornado, which carried on its way into East St. Louis in Illinois, also cost 255 people their lives.
8. The earliest recorded tornadoes
The Rosdalla Tornado of 1054, which hit the village of Rosdalla – now known as Rostella – near Kilbeggan in Ireland, was the earliest ever recorded. Some 37 years later a tornado struck London, England. That twister destroyed the timber London Bridge of the time and wrecked many churches, including St. Mary-le-Bow, and 600 homes. Despite its extremely destructive nature, only two people were killed by this 1091 tornado.
7. The furthest anyone’s been thrown by a tornado… and survived
Fordland, Missouri resident Matt Suter was sitting in his trailer in March 2006 when he saw a tornado warning on TV. “I felt the trailer twisting and tumbling,” Matt later told the Weather Channel. A lamp hit him on the head, knocking him out, and the next thing he knew he was waking up no less than 1,307 feet from his trailer. That’s the furthest anyone has been hurled by a twister and lived to tell the tale.
6. The weirdest tornado coincidence
The township of Codell in Kansas had a truly bizarre tornado experience early in the 20th century. On the same date – May 20 – in 1916, 1917 and 1918, Codell was hit by tornadoes. The first two events passed with little damage to the town, but the third was much more destructive. The 1918 twister took out Codell’s school, hotel and church. Strangely not a single tornado has passed through the town since that date.
5. The U.S. experiences the most tornadoes
It is perhaps a world record that most U.S. citizens would be happy not to claim, but the country sees more tornadoes each year than anywhere else on Earth. Globally, there are something like 2,000 twisters each year, whereas the U.S. sees something like 1,200. American tornadoes occur most often in the spring and least often in winter.
4. Highest tornado wind speed
In 1999 the powerful Bridge Creek-Moore Tornado smashed into southwestern Oklahoma, going on to devastate southern parts of Oklahoma City. During its 35-mile track, radar recorded wind speeds of 301mph – the fastest ever seen. The twister was exceptionally violent, claiming 36 lives and causing $1-billion worth of property damage.
3. First known tornado in the Americas
The earliest tornado to be recorded in the Americas was in modern-day Mexico City in 1521. At that time the city was called Tlatelolco and was of massive importance to the Aztec empire, situated as it was near the religious center of Tenochtitlan. This tornado can be interpreted as an ill omen for the Aztec civilization. Just two days later the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés captured Tlatelolco.
2. How a tornado rescued the White House
In 1812 Britain was at war with its former colony the U.S., following America’s attempted invasion of Canada. In that year British troops succeeded in over-running Washington D.C. and actually set the White House ablaze. But the invading forces only stayed in the capital for 26 hours. A fierce tornado hit the city, hurling British cannons skywards and killing several soldiers. The British decided that retreat was their best option. The accompanying rainstorm also put out the White House fire, saving it from complete destruction.
1. After the storm’s fury… the fungus
The physical destruction caused by tornadoes is easy enough to grasp, but another risk from twisters is much less widely appreciated. In 2011 a violent tornado hit the city of Joplin in Missouri killing 158 people. But it also brought with it a deadly fungus Apophysomyces. A small number of the 1,100 injured in the tornado now saw their wounds blackening and being covered by a white mold similar to that found on stale bread. The mold came from Apophysomyces and the infection killed five of the 13 unfortunates affected.