CLOSE
Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

8 Facts About the Biggest Tornadoes on Earth

Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Tornadoes, it turns out, are about as American as apple pie. The United States is home to the majority of all the tornadoes that touch down around the world every year. Most of these twisters are small and only last a couple of minutes, but a small percentage of them can grow enormous and last for many hours, sometimes tearing a path across entire states. The largest tornadoes are in a category all their own as some of the scariest weather conditions nature can create.

1. HUGE TORNADOES REQUIRE HUGE THUNDERSTORMS.

The average tornado is only a few hundred feet wide, but some can be as narrow as a single vehicle or as wide as a mile or more across. The largest tornadoes require immense thunderstorms called supercells in order to form. A supercell is a thunderstorm with a rotating updraft. This rotating updraft helps the storm become strong and resilient. This extra boost gives supercells the ability to produce hail the size of baseballs or larger, intense winds, and enormous tornadoes.

2. THE HOOK BRINGS YOU BACK.

Tornado supercell radar image
A radar image of the supercell that produced a mile-wide F5 tornado near Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.
Image: Gibson Ridge

Tornadoes usually form in the “hook echo” of a supercell, which is the point where winds wrapping around the storm meet with the updraft racing skyward into the storm. This hook echo is ominously visible on radar imagery and a stunning sight in person. Scientists are still studying why some supercells produce tornadoes and others don’t, but a well-defined hook echo is usually a bad sign that things could get ugly in a hurry.

3. THEY CAN STAY ON THE GROUND FOR A LONG TIME.

Large tornadoes typically have long tracks. Many of these unusually wide storms can stay on the ground for dozens of miles, sometimes traversing several states before finally dissipating. A recent tornado in Wisconsin tracked along a path more than 80 miles long. Unfortunately, when a tornado covers so much ground, it’s more likely to hit populated areas. Many of the tragic tornadoes we’ve seen in recent history caused the amount of damage they did not just because they were intense, but because they covered so much land.

4. SIZE CAN BE DECEIVING.

You shouldn’t judge a tornado solely by its size. Some small tornadoes can produce scale-topping winds, while some big tornadoes are more bark than bite and leave only minor damage—to barns or farm equipment, for example—in their wake. A tornado itself is a rotating column of wind, and it’s the wind that matters. The reason we can see tornadoes is that the low pressure within that column condenses moisture in the air, producing a funnel cloud. If a tornado moves through an area with lots of dust or loose soil, it can make the storm look much larger than it actually is.

5. SOME BIG TORNADOES ARE MADE UP OF SMALLER TORNADOES.

A huge twister can be one terrifying wedge of darkness, but it’s more common for these storms to have several smaller vortices swirling within the larger tornado itself. Storm chasers report this as a "multiple-vortex tornado.” There is some truth to the saying that a tornado can demolish one house and leave the home next door untouched. Some of the worst and strangest damage seen after big tornadoes is attributable to the small, quick “suction vortices” that circulate within a large tornado, sort of like horses going around on a carousel.

6. THE CENTER OF A TORNADO CAN BE RELATIVELY CALM.

If you’ve ever seen the famous final scene of the movie Twister, you’ve probably wondered whether it really is calm and clear in the center of a tornado. It’s not exactly the eye of a hurricane, but the middle of a tornado usually is the calmest part of one of these storms. It’s extremely hard to record (or even see) the inside of a large tornado, but depending on how big it is, the relative lull is likely fleeting and probably still contains gusty winds and flying debris.

7. IMMENSE TORNADOES CAN DO HORRIFYING THINGS.

It’s unsettling to think about what 200-plus mph winds can do when they tear through a populated area. The EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011 was so strong that it warped and shifted the entire structure of a hospital, requiring its demolition. It’s common to hear reports of trenches scoured into the earth and pavement ripped out of the ground from the intense winds. And there are plenty of accounts of more unusual damage, too, such as thin pieces of wood being driven through a tree trunk or a plastic drinking straw allegedly cutting through a piece of sheet metal.

8. OKLAHOMA IS GROUND ZERO FOR THESE BEHEMOTHS.

The central United States is aptly nicknamed “Tornado Alley” for its tendency to see more tornadoes than anywhere else in the world, and that total includes at least a couple of big, mile-wide tornadoes every year. Central Oklahoma holds the record for both the largest and the strongest tornadoes ever recorded. A tornado that touched down in El Reno, Oklahoma, on May 31, 2013, measured 2.6 miles wide at one point, easily breaking the record for the widest tornado ever observed. Back in 1999, a mobile Doppler weather radar recorded winds of more than 300 mph in an F5 tornado that touched down south of Oklahoma City.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Weather Watch
It Just Snowed In the Sahara for the Second Time In Less Than a Month
iStock
iStock

The town of Aïn Séfra, Algeria might need to find a new nickname. Though it’s often referred to as “The Gateway to the Sahara,” the 137-year-old province in northwest Algeria is currently digging out from a rare—and unexpected—snowstorm that left the desert town covered in several inches of snow and battling sub-zero temperatures.

While the Daily Mail reported that “locals took to the nearby sand dunes to enjoy the unusual weather,” the strangest part of the story is that this is Aïn Séfra’s second snowfall in less than a month. On Sunday, January 7, a freak blizzard left parts of the Sahara blanketed in as much as 16 inches of snow.

This most recent storm marked the region’s fourth snowfall in nearly 40 years; in addition to January's dose of the white stuff, the area has been hit with other surprise wintry events in February 1979 and December 2016.

But North Africa isn’t the only area that’s seeing record-breaking weather events. On Saturday, February 3, 17 inches of snow fell on Moscow within 24 hours in what the country has dubbed “the snowfall of the century.” In mid-January, Oymyakon, Russia—a rural village in the Yakutia region, which is already well known as one of the coldest inhabited areas of the world—saw temperatures drop to -88.6°F, making it chilly enough to both bust thermometers and freeze people’s eyelashes. And you thought dealing with single-digit temperatures was tough!

[h/t: Daily Mail]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Vasily Maximov, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Weather Watch
Record-Breaking 17 Inches of Snow Covers Moscow in 24 Hours
Vasily Maximov, AFP/Getty Images
Vasily Maximov, AFP/Getty Images

Moscow sees some of the most brutal winters of any world capital, but even locals weren't prepared for the most recent winter storm to batter the city. As Newsweek reports, a record-breaking 17 inches of snow buried Moscow within 24 hours.

Roughly 7 inches of snow fell just on Saturday, February 3, and the deluge continued through the following Sunday. The accumulation has already been dubbed the "snowfall of the century," and officials expect up to 3 additional inches to cover the ground over the next three days.

The sudden blizzard has brought life to a stand-still in the metropolis of 12 million. The mayor is warning motorists to stay off the roads as around 15,000 snowplows clear the snow. About 2000 trees have been toppled by the storm, injuring at least five people and killing one.

Even as the worst of the weather winds down, over 40,000 people in Moscow and the surrounding regions are without power. Meanwhile, traveling in and out of the city has become close to impossible: Around 100 flights are grounded at the local airport indefinitely and at least 10 have been canceled all together.

The historic snowfall hasn't stopped many of Moscow's tougher residents from venturing outside. Check out photos from the event below.

Person cross-country skiing over snow in Moscow.
Yuri Kadobnov, AFP/Getty Images

Walking through a blizzard in Moscow.
Yuri Kadobnov, AFP/Getty Images

Walking through the snow in Moscow.
Yuri Kadobnov, AFP/Getty Images

Walking through the snow in Moscow.
Yuri Kadobnov, AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios