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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.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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iStock

What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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