Like a monster trash compactor stretching from the ground to the heavens, tornadoes descend with little warning from the planet’s scariest storms, taking just a few minutes to ruin thousands of lives.


F5 tornado Elie Manitoba 2007 (Photo credit : Justin-Hobson - Wikipedia)

Like any natural disaster worth its salt, tornadoes remind us of how puny we humans and our built structures really are. Here are 12 cool facts about tornadoes to keep you from getting bored as you crouch in a dank, dark cellar hiding from the most violent storm on the planet.

1 – Tornadoes Are the Most Intense Storms on Earth

Tornadoes are the most intense storms on Earth, trumping even mighty hurricanes. They can demolish entire neighborhoods in mere seconds. Like a great map-reset function, they easily suck up the trappings of civilization – structures, vehicles, and living things – and slam them down miles from where they started. These natural bullies are unfathomably destructive.

2 – We Still Don’t Know Enough

Despite being one of the most intensely studied weather phenomena, humans remain dumbstruck when it comes to tornado formation. We still don’t know why some storms produce them and other similar storms don’t. We still don’t know enough to predict them more than a few minutes in advance.

3 – Tornadoes Are Invisible

It’s true – the tornado itself is as invisible as the wind, literally. What you see of a tornado is moisture in the air, as well as lots of dust and the debris the tornado has picked up along the way. Just remember that, with a tornado, what you see is not necessarily what you get. It could be larger than you think.

4 – Each Has Its Own Smell

Tornado chasers say each funnel has its own unique kind of personality, with a distinct odor and color. Tornadoes tend to be blank canvasses, taking on the characteristics of the landscape they’re carving up. When a tornado plows through a farmer’s field in Oklahoma, for example, the red topsoil turns the funnel red and you can smell the rich aroma of freshly tilled earth.

5 – They’re The Perfect Storm

In a sense, tornadoes are always the proverbial ‘perfect storm.’ Atmospheric conditions must be just right, like Goldilocks. Too much warmth or too great a pressure differential, and a funnel probably won’t have the momentum to get going.

6 – ‘Tornado Chaser’ Is a Real Job

There are different types of T-chasers, from trained professional researchers to thrill-seekers who do it as a form of entertainment. This latter group, dubbed “yahoo chasers” by their scientific counterparts, has become more common in the age of YouTube, to a point that things get crowded when springtime storms break out in the heart of Tornado Alley.

7 – The Worst Ones Don’t Have Funnels

Classical tornadoes look like funnels, but in reality, they come in all shapes – cylinders, wedges, ropes, and more. The wider they are, the more damage they can do. The widest twisters in history were several miles wide, with predictably horrific consequences for the communities they wrecked.

8 – Opening the Windows is Pointless

Tornadoes are a case where myths can kill, especially when they drive people to make bad decisions when time is precious – like stopping before taking shelter to open your house windows to ‘relieve pressure’ and preempt flying broken glass. Despite what you may have heard, this is plain bad advice. Window-closing only delays escape when it’s most critical. If you want to avoid flying shards of glass, seek shelter in a room without windows.

9 – They Can Happen Anywhere

Although some places are more prone than others, tornadoes can and do occur everywhere on Earth. They aren’t as geographically tied-down as many believe. The triggers can materialize over any kind of terrain, including bodies of water, mountain tops, and dense urban areas. When atmospheric conditions are just right, Mother Nature doesn’t care what the land is like below.

10 – Hiding In A Ditch Won’t Save You

A common tidbit of advice in prime twister territory is to take shelter in a ditch, since tornadoes will allegedly pass right over you at the ground level. Folks: Do not seek shelter from a tornado in a ditch. It will not pass over without picking you up. Many people have died following this bad advice.

11 – Some Are Totally Harmless

There are “supercell” tornadoes and “non-supercell” tornadoes. The massive, terrifying sort Hollywood loves is of the supercell variety, meaning it derives its overwhelming energy from a larger storm system.

Non-supercell tornadoes, on the other hand – like landspouts and waterspouts – are generally harmless. Both ‘spouts are weaker, shorter-lived, and less dangerous than the stereotypical supercell. It’s just not the same without a thundering mother vortex to up the ante.

12 – Dust Devils Are NOT Tornadoes

A tornado is defined by airflow patterns, not by what it looks like or even the weather conditions that give rise to it. By definition, a ‘tornado’ has an unbroken column of rotating air reaching from the ground to a cloud. That’s why a landspout, a.k.a. “dust-tube tornado,” is a true tornado, even though it doesn’t really look or act like one.

It’s also why the “dust devils” of the American Southwest are not true tornadoes, as they only form on cloudless days. No clouds means there’s nothing to touch base with in the sky. Also banned from the true tornado camp are blustery “gustnadoes,” spine-chilling “firewhirls,” and toxic volcano tornadoes – affectionately known as “volcanadoes.”