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9.24: Tornadoes

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Who killed the Wicked Witch of the East?

Dorothy's house flies up in a tornado to the magical land of Oz. When the tornado ends, the house it falls on the witch. Dorothy becomes a hero for killing the tyrannical witch, but despite that yearns for home. In the real world, tornadoes do kill, but houses don't usually fly, and wicked witches usually avoid tornadoes.


Tornadoes, also called twisters, are fierce products of severe thunderstorms (Figure below). As air in a thunderstorm rises, the surrounding air races in to fill the gap. This forms a tornado, a funnel-shaped, whirling column of air extending downward from a cumulonimbus cloud.

The formation of this tornado outside Dimmit, Texas, in 1995 was well studied.

A tornado lasts from a few seconds to several hours. The average wind speed is about 177 kph (110 mph), but some winds are much faster. A tornado travels over the ground at about 45 km per hour (28 miles per hour) and goes about 25 km (16 miles) before losing energy and disappearing (Figure below).

This tornado struck Seymour, Texas, in 1979.


An individual tornado strikes a small area, but it can destroy everything in its path. Most injuries and deaths from tornadoes are caused by flying debris (Figure below). In the United States an average of 90 people are killed by tornadoes each year. The most violent two percent of tornadoes account for 70% of the deaths by tornadoes.

Tornado damage at Ringgold, Georgia in April 2011.


Tornadoes form at the front of severe thunderstorms. Lines of these thunderstorms form in the spring where where maritime tropical (mT) and continental polar (cP) air masses meet. Although there is an average of 770 tornadoes annually, the number of tornadoes each year varies greatly (Figure below).

The frequency of F3, F4, and F5 tornadoes in the United States. The red region that starts in Texas and covers Oklahoma, Nebraska, and South Dakota is called Tornado Alley because it is where most of the violent tornadoes occur.

April 2011

In late April 2011, severe thunderstorms pictured in the satellite image spawned the deadliest set of tornadoes in more than 25 years. In addition to the meeting of cP and mT mentioned above, the jet stream was blowing strongly in from the west. The result was more than 150 tornadoes reported throughout the day (Figure below).

April 27-28, 2011. The cold air mass is shown by the mostly continuous clouds. Warm moist air blowing north from the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico is indicated by small low clouds. Thunderstorms are indicated by bright white patches.

The entire region was alerted to the possibility of tornadoes in those late April days. But meteorologists can only predict tornado danger over a very wide region. No one can tell exactly where and when a tornado will touch down. Once a tornado is sighted on radar, its path is predicted and a warning is issued to people in that area. The exact path is unknown because tornado movement is not very predictable.

Tornado catchers capture footage inside a tornado on this National Geographic video: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0506/feature6/multimedia.html.

Fujita Scale

The intensity of tornadoes is measured on the Fujita Scale (see Table below), which assigns a value based on wind speed and damage.

The Fujita Scale (F Scale) of Tornado Intensity
F Scale (km/hr) (mph) Damage
F0 64-116 40-72 Light - tree branches fall and chimneys may collapse
F1 117-180 73-112 Moderate - mobile homes, autos pushed aside
F2 181-253 113-157 Considerable - roofs torn off houses, large trees uprooted
F3 254-33 158-206 Severe - houses torn apart, trees uprooted, cars lifted
F4 333-419 207-260 Devastating - houses leveled, cars thrown
F5 420-512 261-318 Incredible - structures fly, cars become missiles
F6 >512 >318 Maximum tornado wind speed


  • tornado: Violently rotating funnel cloud that grows downward from a cumulonimbus cloud.


  • A tornado is a whirling funnel of air extending down from a cumulonimbus cloud.
  • The Fujita scale measures tornado intensity based on wind speed and damage.
  • Tornadoes can only be predicted over a wide region.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


1. What are tornadoes?

2. When do tornadoes usually occur?

3. What are supercells?

4. Explain how tornadoes form?

5. What is a mesocyclone?

6. What causes tornadoes to be darker in color?

7. How are tornadoes rated?

8. How long do tornadoes usually last? What determines this?


1. What causes the tornadoes of Tornado Alley?

2. How does the Fujita scale resemble the scales for assessing earthquake intensity? Which does it most resemble?

3. What circumstances led to the intensity of tornado activity in April 2011?

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tornado Violently rotating funnel cloud that grows downward from a cumulonimbus cloud.

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Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 06, 2016
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