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.

12 Powerful Facts About Hurricanes


Hurricanes are a stunning, and dangerous, display of nature’s power. They’re some of the largest and most intense storms nature can produce. Today, we know more about these systems and have an easier time measuring and predicting them than ever before. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to hurricanes. As the 2019 hurricane season kicks off (it runs from June 1st through November 30th), here are some things you might not know about these dangerous storms.

1. Hurricanes are only "hurricanes" around North America.

A tropical cyclone is a compact, low-pressure system fueled by thunderstorms that draw energy from the heat generated by warm ocean waters. These tropical cyclones acquire different names depending on how strong they are and where in the world they form. A mature tropical cyclone is called a hurricane in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans. What’s known as a hurricane in the Atlantic is called a typhoon near Asia and simply a cyclone everywhere else in the world.

2. Hurricanes come in all shapes and sizes.

Not all hurricanes are picture-perfect. Some storms can look so disorganized that it takes an expert eye and advanced technology to spot them. A full-fledged hurricane can be as small as a few dozen miles across or as large as one-half of the United States, as was the case with Typhoon Tip in the western Pacific Ocean in 1979. The smallest tropical cyclone on record was 2008’s Tropical Storm Marco, a tiny storm in the Gulf of Mexico that almost made it to hurricane strength. Marco’s strong winds only extended 12 miles from the eye of the storm—a distance smaller than the length of Manhattan.

3. The greatest danger in a hurricane is in the eyewall.

The spiraling bands of wind and rain that radiate from the center of a hurricane are what give these storms their distinctive buzzsaw shape. These bands can cause damage, flooding, and even tornadoes, but the worst part of a hurricane is the eyewall, or the tight group of thunderstorms that rage around the center of the storm. The most severe winds in a hurricane usually occupy a small part of the eyewall just to the right of the storm’s forward motion, an area known as the right-front quadrant. The worst damage is usually found where this part of the storm comes ashore.

4. The eye of a hurricane is very warm.

The core of a hurricane is very warm—they are tropical, after all. The eye of a hurricane is formed by air rushing down from the upper levels of the atmosphere to fill the void left by the low air pressure at the surface. Air dries out and warms up as it rapidly descends through the eye toward the surface. This allows temperatures in the eye of a strong hurricane to exceed 80°F thousands of feet above the Earth's surface, where it’s typically much colder.

5. You can tell a lot about a hurricane by its eye.

Like humans, you can tell a lot about a hurricane by looking it in the eye. A ragged, asymmetrical eye means that the storm is struggling to strengthen. A smooth, round eye means that the storm is both stable and quite strong. A tiny eye—sometimes called a pinhole or pinpoint eye—is usually indicative of a very intense storm.

6. Some hurricanes have two eyes.

An eye doesn’t last forever. Storms frequently encounter a process known as an “eyewall replacement cycle,” which is where a storm develops a new eyewall to replace the old one. A storm weakens during one of these cycles, but it can quickly grow even more intense than it originally was once the replacement cycle is completed. When Hurricane Matthew scraped the Florida coast in October 2016, the storm’s impacts were slightly less severe because the storm underwent an eyewall replacement cycle just as it made its closest approach to land.

7. The strong winds that a hurricane creates are only part of the danger.

While strong winds get the most coverage on the news, wind isn’t always the most dangerous part of the storm. More than half of all deaths that result from a landfalling hurricane are due to the storm surge, or the sea water that gets pushed inland by a storm’s strong winds. Most storm surges are relatively small and only impact the immediate coast, but in a larger storm like Katrina or Sandy, the wind can push deep water so far inland that it completely submerges homes many miles from the coast.

8 California rarely sees tropical cyclones.

It can seem odd that California occupies hundreds of miles of coastline but always seems to evade the hurricane threat faced by the East Coast. California almost never sees tropical cyclones because the ocean is simply too cold to sustain a storm. Only a handful of tropical cyclones have ever reached California in recorded history—the worst hit San Diego in 1858. The San Diego Hurricane was an oddity that’s estimated to have reached category 1 intensity as it brushed the southern half of the Golden State.

9. Hurricane hunters fly planes into storms.

Aside from satellite and radar imagery, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what a hurricane is doing unless it passes directly over a buoy or a ship. This is where the Hurricane Hunters come in, a brave group of scientists with the United States Air Force and NOAA who fly specially outfitted airplanes directly into the worst of a storm to measure its winds and report back their findings. This practice began during World War II and has become a mainstay of hurricane forecasting in the decades since.

10. Hurricane hunters drop sensors to measure waves.

The Hurricane Hunters assess the storm with all sorts of tools that measure temperature, pressure, wind, and moisture, and have weather radar onboard to give them a detailed view of the entire storm. They regularly release dropsondes to "read" the inside of the storm. Dropsondes are like weather balloons in reverse: instead of launching weather sensors from the ground into the sky, they drop them down through the sky to the ground. The Hurricane Hunters also have innovative sensors that measure waves and sea foam and use the data to accurately estimate how strong the winds are at the surface.

11. We started naming storms to keep track of them.

Meteorologists in the United States officially started naming tropical storms and hurricanes in the 1950s to make it easier to keep track in forecasts and news reports. Since then, naming tropical cyclones has become a worldwide effort coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for maintaining meteorological standards. Today, the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Pacific Ocean each receive a list of alternating masculine and feminine names that are reused every six years.

12. Names are retired if the storm was especially destructive.

If a storm is particularly destructive or deadly, the WMO will “retire” the name from official lists so it’s never used again out of respect for the families of the storm’s victims and survivors. When a name is retired, another name starting with the same letter takes its place. More than 80 names have been retired from the Atlantic Ocean’s list of names since 1954. Earlier this year, it was announced that the names Florence and Michael were being retired as a result of the damage they caused during the 2018 hurricane season; they will be replaced with Francine and Milton when the list is reused in 2024.

This piece originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2019.

Denver is About to Experience Summer and Winter Temperatures Within 24 Hours


In a story tailor-made for exhaustive Weather Channel coverage, Denver, Colorado is about to experience one of the more bizarre weather shifts in recent memory. After an expected Tuesday high of 80°F, residents can anticipate a dramatic shift down to 32°F by midday Wednesday, with an initial half-inch of snow accumulation increasing to up to 7 inches by Wednesday night.

Put another way: Citizens who need to make sure they hydrate in the warm temperatures Tuesday will have to bring out the parkas the following day.

The Denver Post reports that the warm air coming ahead of the cold can result in a clash of air masses, prompting areas of low pressure that can create forceful and damaging weather conditions. The storm could bring winds of up to 60 miles per hour and possibly even cause power outages. Snow accumulation should dissipate by the weekend, when temperatures are expected to climb back into the 60s.

The high temperature record for April 9 in Denver is 81°F, set in 1977.

[h/t The Denver Post]