10 Myths About Tornadoes Debunked

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Lots of the myths we have today are relics of a time when we didn't understand how the world worked. Weather is a topic that is rife with legends and sayings that purport to explain how storms form and behave. But even though we now have a greater understanding of the science behind weather, these misguided beliefs are still pervasive. (After all, if our grandparents said it; it's got to be true.) While most weather myths are harmless and quirky, the misconceptions surrounding tornadoes in particular can be a dire threat to your safety in an emergency.


It's understandable that we often try to see danger before taking someone else's word for it, but when it comes to tornadoes, that's not a great idea. You can't always see a tornado before it hits. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy rain that makes them impossible to see until they're right on top of you. Some twisters that are very small, or form in drier climates, never develop the condensation funnel that gives them their unmistakable look, presenting themselves only as a swirling debris cloud at the ground.


One of the biggest clichés in weather is that a tornado sounds like a freight train when it hits. It's dangerous to wait until you can see a tornado to run for cover, but it's just silly to wait until you can hear one. The wind often picks up before a tornado arrives, but you won't hear that signature roaring sound until it's so close that it's too late to seek shelter.


We've all probably seen a movie or a television show where a character runs around the house frantically opening the windows before a tornado strikes. This is one of the most well-known tornado myths—and it's completely bogus. This comes from a day when people thought that buildings exploded from extreme pressure differences rather than being torn apart by the wind. Opening windows and doors just makes it easier for the wind and debris to get inside and cause more damage.


Some people who live in cities comfort themselves during thunderstorms by repeating the myth that tornadoes can't hit cities … except they can and do. Tall buildings don't stop a thunderstorm from spawning a tornado. A tornado hit downtown Atlanta in 2008, shattering windows at CNN's headquarters and damaging the roof of the Georgia Dome during a basketball game. Tornadoes in the past two decades have also hit New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, Texas, and many other major metropolitan areas in the United States.


Folks who live in mountains or hilly terrain generally see fewer severe thunderstorms than their lower-lying counterparts, but the rough land doesn't provide blanket immunity from bad storms or even some tornadoes. Tornadoes can and do hit mountainous areas. They're not the monstrous walls of black you'd see in Oklahoma, but even a small tornado can do damage.


Have you ever heard someone say not to worry about a tornado because it can't cross a river, lake, or bay? It's not true. Cooler air near bodies of water can disrupt thunderstorms, which could in turn disrupt tornadoes, but the water itself has no deterring effect on a tornado. Tornadoes easily cross rivers and lakes just as they would over land. In fact, the lower friction over the water might actually help a tornado's winds increase a little bit.


The kind of carnage a tornado can do to a vehicle is no joke. Tornadoes can twist cars and trucks into unrecognizable hunks of metal. This unfortunate reality causes countless motorists to take shelter under a bridge or overpass when threatened by a tornado. This is a terrible idea. Bridges and overpasses offer no protection from tornadoes and can actually make their winds even worse. Not only that, but taking shelter under a bridge can cause traffic jams that turn people into sitting ducks in an approaching storm.


Many of us grew up hearing that you should hide in the southwest corner of a basement when a tornado strikes, because doing so will expose you to the least debris if the worst happens. Most tornadoes do move from southwest to northeast, but a tornado can come from any direction—and swirling debris will go where it may. Don't worry about looking at a compass during a tornado warning. You'll want to get as far underground as possible, and if you can't do that, go to the most interior room of a house. The goal is to put as many barriers between you and flying debris as possible.


Tornadoes aren't just a springtime event. While tornado activity peaks between April and June, they're possible at any time of year. Ugly tornado outbreaks are a regular occurrence in the southern United States during the winter months. Tornadoes that occur in the “off-months,” so to speak, can be especially dangerous, because people aren't paying attention to severe weather when they're sitting by their Christmas tree enjoying a movie.


Despite their reputations for occurring in places that are dry or bitter cold or have perpetually sunny skies, no state is immune from tornadoes. All 50 states have reported tornadoes at some point since the early 1950s. Tornadoes are most common from Alabama through Texas and north from Texas through Nebraska, but if the conditions are right, they can form anywhere from the woods of Maine to the beach towns of southern California. There have even been four reported tornadoes in Alaska, though the actual number in the country's largest state might be higher due to the lack of people around to report tornadoes.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.

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[h/t Detroit Free Press]