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BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

Behaviors & Effects of Tornadoes


Isabella Kennedy, Tiara Andrew, Om Baral, Elijah Gibbs, Bradford Hatch, Nicholas Shearer
Salt Lake Community College

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES


Abstract
It will come as no surprise to most people that tornadoes are very important to understand. In
short, tornadoes are aggressive columns of wind that can cause tremendous amounts of damage.
Over the last eight years alone, 951 people have died as a result of tornadoes. Over half of those
deaths occurred in 2011, which was the second most deadly year for tornadoes in U.S. history,
with 553 deaths, 158 of which happened by a single tornado in Jasper, Missouri. This statistic
alone should be more than enough to stress the importance of understanding tornadoes.

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

Behaviors & Effects of Tornadoes


While learning about the statistics is very interesting and rather surprising, knowledge
about how tornadoes form, how fast they spin, how to predict them, and how modern science is
making strides in understanding all of these factors is more important than simply understanding
the statistics. In this paper we will discuss the following: what tornadoes are, how they form and
the science behind their formation, and the methods that are used to predict their formation. We
explore the changes in tornado activity over time, as well as look into the changes in the physical
aspects of tornadoes, including their size and magnitude. Finally, we discuss the modern
advances that have taken place overtime when it comes to prediction, prevention, and the
specific methods that are used to do this.
What tornadoes are
Tornadoes are narrow, aggressively rotating air columns extending from the thunderstorm
base to the ground. In most cases, tornadoes form during spring and summer. They can bring
about catastrophic effects on people and their properties. Given that it is normally hard to see the
wind due to its invisible nature, it is also hard to spot a tornado except when it forms the
condensation funnel constituting of dust, debris, and water droplets. In most cases, thunderstorms
and some low moisture levels precede tornadoes. As such, for tornadoes to occur, there should be
some moist air such as that from the Mexican Gulf as well as dry and cool air such as that from
Canada. Once these masses of air meet, they bring about some atmospheric instability. The
change in the direction of the wind and its speed increase and the increasing heights brings about
an invisible, horizontal whirling effect. The rising air in an updraft slants the rotating air to
vertical from horizontal. As such, the weather before a tornado is characterized by moisture and
atmospheric instability like in the case of thunderstorms. After a tornado, the weather is

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

relatively calm, however, there may be some wind and rainy weather still lingering. This
happened recently in Southeast Manitoba where storms were witnessed after the tornado. There
has also been cases of hail storms though only in isolated areas.
How they form. A simplified version of how tornadoes are formed is the clashing of
masses of warm and cold air. More precisely, tornadoes can emerge from what is called
supercell thunderstorms. These thunderstorms combine warm humid air near the ground with
colder air at a higher altitude. These conditions, combined with several types of circular air
patterns which occur at the same time, in different directions, can produce a thunderstorm that
rotates. Some of these types of rotating thunderstorms will form a tornado. The spout of a
tornado is an example of a vortex formed in the air which is caused because a column of water
vapor created by condensation in the low pressure and low temperature of the core. Tornadoes
are often shaped like a funnel but it can vary according the climatic conditions and is considered
a vertically formed cloud which carries dense water vapors called the cumulonimbus cloud. The
last step in the creation of a tornado requires the downward drafts of air to be at just the right
temperature. These downdrafts help to bring the rotating air close to ground where it can uproot
trees and destroy homes.
Tornadoes are most often associated with fast-moving cold fronts that sweep across the
midsection of the United States usually in the spring between March and July. Most tornadoes
have wind speeds of less than 100 miles per hour, only reach a height of 250 feet and travel a
mile or two before falling apart. However, the most violent of these rotating storms called
whirlwinds can produce tornadoes with devastating wind velocities of more than 300 miles per
hour, attain heights of 60,000 feet, can be more than two miles in diameter and stay on the
ground for dozens of miles.

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

When a cold front, which is a strong low-pressure storm system that rotates counterclockwise, brings up warm, moist, tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico, it transports cold air
from behind which wedges underneath the warm Gulf air that is drawn in ahead of the storm
center. Then, the heavy cold air wedges under the less dense warm tropical air which forces the
warm air to rise. If the air is unstable, a cloud will accelerate upward, making a huge
thundercloud. The upward surge stops only when the cloud has penetrated the cold upper air.
This high top cloud indicates unstable air at abnormal heights.
The majority of damaging tornadoes are created by supercell thunderstorms. The defining
characteristic of a supercell storm is its persistent rotating updraft. This rotation is often easily
seen. The size of the updrafts rotation is much broader than that of the tornado. According to
physicist, Paul Markowski, The rotation can be quantified by vorticity, which is the curl of the
velocity vector. In mid-latitudes, where supercells are the most common, thats roughly 100
times the vertical vorticity associated with the spin of the Earth on its axis.
The storm acquires large-scale rotation by tilting the horizontal vorticity by the wind
entering the storms updraft. (The variation of horizontal wind components with height, known
as the vertical wind shear, determines the horizontal vorticity.) The warm and cool air located on
either side of the downdraft then tilts the horizontal vorticity upward as the air parcels descend.
Momentum then increases as the air converges toward the axis rotation while being sucked
upward by the strong mesocyclone above. Air parcels do not acquire the strength of a
mesocyclone until they have risen several hundred feet. Counter-rotating vortices straddle the
updraft with cyclonic rotation to the left and anti-cyclonic rotation to the right. A high-altitude
zone of strong wind from the west tends to increase the chance for violence when associated with
this type of storm system.

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

Forecasters have become skillful in identifying environments capable of supporting


strong violent tornadoes. For example, tornadoes are now routinely predicted days in advance by
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Storm Prediction Center. Strong
tornadoes rarely hit with no tornado watch in place. The ability to make such predictions largely
stems from understanding the favorable combination of not-so-cold downdrafts and strong lowaltitude upward suction of air within supercell thunderstorms.
The geographic conditions which favor tornado development often includes large areas of
wide flat land with no obstruction to the flow of surface winds. In addition, low elevation near
sea level which allows the full height of the atmosphere to develop a funnel cloud where cold air
in the north can be swept into a low-pressure storm system that has access to warm humid air to
the south. The majority of all world-wide tornadoes are found to occur in the United States.
Therefore, the vast majority of tornado research is conducted in the U.S. Tornadoes and
supercell thunderstorms are among the most intensely studied hazardous weather phenomena.
Changes over time. In many ways it is important for us to know and understand the
changes in tornadoes over time, from locations they occur, to changes in size and magnitude, to
changes in the information we obtain about tornadoes, all help us understand how they work and
the conditions they thrive in. When studying these changes it is interesting to note that an
estimated 1,200 tornadoes strike the United States each year making this a physics topic that hits
close to home, literally.
Tornadoes have been witnessed in every continent except Antarctica. They are most
documented in the United States which is where the focus of this section will be. A region in the
United States, Tornado Ally (see Figure 1) has all of the weather conditions to allow tornadoes to
form, which is why the vast majority of documented tornadoes occurred in those states. The

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history occurred on March 18, 1925. 747 people were killed
and 2,027 were injured in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana when several twisters struck down on
that same day. The largest of these tornadoes, name the Tri-State, took 695 lives and was
classified as an F5. It moved over 215 miles of land at 60-73 mph (2016). We also see changes
in the number of tornadoes documented over time based on growth of the population in those
areas. Florida is also a vulnerable state to tornadoes because it sits at sea level and has a higher
number of daily thunderstorms, as well as intense tropical storms which tend to produce
tornadoes when storm systems move onshore.
There is not a lot of data supporting the idea of an increase in size and magnitude of
tornadoes over time, what we do see is that this change is due to the fact that more people
populate the United States and it is covered by NOAAs Doppler weather radars. Even if a
tornado is not actually observed, modern damage assessments by National Weather Service
personnel can discern if a tornado caused the damage, and if so, how strong the tornado may
have been (NOAA). This kind of documentation hasnt always been around making a sound
argument of change a challenge. Another thing to consider is the effect of climate change on
tornadoes. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
highlights a number of reasons why it is tricky to determine if tornado activity will change as the
climate warms. First, like stated before, scientists dont have a complete, good quality data set on
tornadoes that have already occurred. They cant see how tornadoes have changed with
temperatures rising because of this. Second, computer models used to simulate the changes in
climate work on such large scales, like changes in the ocean and the atmosphere on a global
level. In comparison tornadoes are small weather events. Finally, climate change is likely to
affect the two critical conditions for tornado formation- atmospheric moisture and wind shear- in

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

opposite ways. The atmosphere is expected to hold more moisture as temperatures rise, making
tornadoes more likely, but wind shear will probably decrease, having the opposite effect
(Carbon brief, 2013). It is hard to say if one will override the other.
The information being gathered about tornadoes is mostly used to predict when one will
occur, to issue tornado warnings to communities. The changes in tornado forecasting has
improved vastly over a long period of time. The first possible tornado report in the United
States occurred in July 1643 in Massachusetts, documented by author David Ludlam. The report
was recorded by Massachusetts Governor and weather enthusiast John Winthrop (NOAA,2014).
The first person put in charge of investigating and creating a forecasting method was U.S. Army
Signal Corps Sergeant John P. Finley, in 1882. During a tornado outbreak on February 19, 1884,
Finley established 15 rules for early tornado forecasting. These rules identified signs that the
formation of a tornado was likely. Shortly after the word tornado was banned from the official
forecast due to limitations with the observing network and concerns over causing mass panic
among the general public. Interestingly enough the ban on the word tornado continued for four
decades, into the early 20 century. That is when the Tri-State Tornado struck (see Figure 2) and
th

Alfred J. Henry, editor of the Monthly Weather Review, described the conditions that occurred
noted that nine of the fifteen of Finleys rules appeared in his analysis. Because of Finleys work
forecasters at the time were able to recognize the possibility for tornadoes, they just couldnt
predict one in advance. Then moving further in time, we see the developments and
advancement in the application of radar which were made during World War II to detect enemy
warships and aircraft (NOAA,2014). Sometimes the radar images would be obscured by rain,
which led to the option of using radar in weather forecasting. The famous Palm Sunday Outbreak
occurred on April 11-12, 1965, at this time the Weather Bureau had WSR-57 radars and the

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

TIROS VII satellite images available for forecasting and yet 271 lives were lost and $200 million
in damage. The next advancement was the introduction of the F-scale, it uses damage caused by
the tornado to determine its wind speed. Fujitas scale included six levels of tornado intensity,
from F0-F5, and connected tornado damage with the wind scale (NOAA,2014). The F-scale is
the foundation on which all past and future tornadoes are evaluated. This scale was refined and
improved and is referred to as the EF Scale, still rating tornados on a scale of zero to five, but
ranges in wind speed on the scale are more accurate. Advancements in computer technology
have vastly improved severe weather reporting as well as training forecasters to recognize
signatures on radar and satellites. The development of the Doppler radar allows meteorologists to
detect wind circulations that may develop prior to a storm producing a tornado.
The first EF-5 tornado in the United States since 1999 destroyed the town of Greensburg
in southwest Kansas on May 4, 2007. With a 39-minute warning lead time and extra tornado
emergency messages issued by the National Weather Service Forecasters 10-12 minutes before
the storm hit, most residents were able to seek shelter and only 11 people died (NOAA,2014).
This vast improvement of tornado prediction saved countless lives and the research into the
technologies to enhance these predictions further continues. Overall tornadoes have changed
very little, if any, it is our understanding and advances in technology that have drastically
changed. Also the increase in the number of tornadoes we see is most likely due to the fact that
there are simply more people around to document them.
Physical aspect. Tornadoes are known to be one of the most destructive storms next to
hurricanes and tsunamis. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
the number of fatalities reached a little over 800 in the past 10 years, with 2011 holding the lead
of 553 deaths in one year (Severe Weather). A common misconception of tornadoes is the belief

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

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that the tornado itself is what kills people when in fact the debris is the actual culprit (Howard,
2014). These fatal storms number an average of 1,200 a year ranging from a class F-0 to an F-5.
Meteorologists use the Enhanced Fujita scale which is a scale that measures wind speed and
damage caused, therefore giving the rating of either an EF-0, being the lowest, and EF-5 being
the highest (Howard, 2014). The lower scaled tornadoes, reach speeds of about 100 mph and are
estimated to be 250 feet wide. The more extreme cases of tornados reach to speeds of 300 mph or
more, can be more than 2 miles wide, and last for 30 minutes according to the NOAA (Severe
Weather).
Twisters can happen anywhere, but in the areas that are most inclined to have tornado
incidences, meteorologists have tools to detect an oncoming tornado. According to NOAA,
technology cannot fully predict a tornado but can assist meteorologists to identify the changes in
weather that can lead to a tornado (Severe Weather). The NOAA has its own storm prediction
center website for anyone interested in following these storms. A tornado watch is when
meteorologists study the weather in a specific area because severe weather has been spotted.
Tornado warnings on the other hand happen when meteorologists have detected a tornado either
from a sighting or Doppler radar showing a severe thunderstorm strong enough turn into a
tornado. What a meteorologist looks for in detecting a tornado are specific clouds, winds, and
rain. Researchers are examining precipitation characteristics of supercell thunderstorms, such as
the size and distribution of raindrops and hailstones, and how those affect supercell downdraft
regions, vorticity generation and ultimately the formation of tornadoes. Simulation techniques
and observations of these precipitation characteristics are very challenging. One area where there
has been technological advances is the upgrade of the National Weather Services radar
detection. Dual-Doppler radar uses at least two different radars from different viewing angles to

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES

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scan a storm. Instead of merely identifying where precipitation exists, radar can now identify
whether precipitation comprises of large or small raindrops, hail or even debris. These
observations benefit the research on how storms precipitation characteristics influence the
development of a tornado.
Modern day advances. Living within a highly populated area of tornadoes residents
should be prepared for a twister at any time. First, would be to create an emergency plan so that
everyone understands where to meet and what to do if a tornado were to unexpectedly appear
(Tornadoes). Second, be able to spot signs of an oncoming storm. Look for dark clouds, heavy
hail, and loud thunder (Tornadoes). Third, create an emergency kit that can last longer than a
week because your usual utilities may be disconnected. Foods that can be stored for a long
period of time, like canned foods, are typically the most preferred. There are others like
dehydrated food and freeze dried foods that people also like to store. Next, having enough water
to last longer than a week would be a substantial amount when you take in factors like cooking
and drinking as well as hygiene purposes. If chosen to store freeze dried foods, then a higher
amount of water will need to be stored. Finally, creating a stable shelter will be able to protect
everyone within your group. Most have been known to be underground, but some are part of a
first floor home (Tornadoes). Whether it be a basement in a house or an underground shelter,
these are the most preferred seeing that it is the safest place. The shelter must provide a firm
foundation to withstand high impact winds and debris that may come with the storm. For
example, concrete has been known to withstand these circumstances and is not easily punctured
(Tornadoes). Preparation for these catastrophic storms is most vital to any person who may live
in an area where tornadoes are most active.

BEHAVIORS & EFFECTS OF TORNADOES


Conclusion
Tornadoes are easily one of the most destructive and abnormal weather anomalies on
earth. With dozens of people dying every year to these catastrophes, tornadoes need to be
researched and progress needs to happen with prediction and prevention.

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References

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Howard, B. C. (2015, May 11). How tornadoes form and why theyre so unpredictable. National
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A Statistical Model for Regional Tornado Climate Studies.

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Retrieved from http://www.github.com/tjagger/County


Kim Ann Zimmerman. (2012, December 19). Tornado Alley: Where Twisters Form. Retrieved
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Markowski, Paul., (2014, September 14). The Physics Behind Deadly Tornadoes.
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Oceanic, N., & Administration, A. (2007, September 26). NOAA 200th feature story: History of
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Roe, Betty D, and Paul C. Burns. Informal Reading Inventory: Preprimer to Twelfth Grade. ,
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Tornadoes| Ready.gov.(n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ready.gov/tornadoes

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Figures

Figure 1. National Weather Service Storm Prediction Centers map of tornado alley. Here we see
the average annual tornado watches per year.

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Figure 2. Tri-State Tornado Facts, History, and Information. Image depicts the immense damage
caused by the Tri-State Tornado in Gorham Illinois.

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