Many people have heard of a tornado, but few know exactly what one is. Most people imagine big, fat wind-snapping machines with enormous blades that can rip apart buildings. Although there is some truth to this image, they aren’t all dangerous; they can also be a beautiful and deadly force for nature.
Since tornadoes are a part of nature and important to understand, scientists have been trying to classify and study them for years. They have given this phenomenon various names, such as “mini-typhoons,” “micro-cyclones,” and “rodent spirals.” But for all intents and purposes, these are all the same thing: high-speed winds that can cause catastrophic damage.
Like a hurricane, a typhoon, or an ice storm, a tornado is a weather event that is difficult to predict. Yet knowing how tornadoes form, where they form, and what causes them to form can help people prepare for the unpredictable power of nature.
What Is A Tornado?
A tornado is a rotating column of super-hot air that can be as little as 10cm across, or as large as 1km wide. These mini-tornadoes are technically called “Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities,” which happens when fast-moving air meets a vertical surface. The friction caused by this interaction heats the air, which in turn creates the tornado.
When the air in a tornado is spinning at hundreds of kilometers per hour, even small items can become catastrophic. The air can reach temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and it acts like a miniature atomic bomb, ripping houses and vehicles apart. With its high velocity and extreme temperature, the tornado can strip paint off a house in mere seconds.
Tornadoes are most destructive during the summer in America’s midwest and north-central regions. But they can and do form at any time of year, so long as there is humidity and winds to help them along. While some people believe that tornadoes only form in certain parts of the country and aren’t a threat in other parts, this is not the case. Every state in the U.S. is potentially at risk of tornadoes. If even a small twister form in your area, it can be devastating.
How Do Tornadoes Form?
Tornadoes can form from the exact same process that hurricanes form. Wind gusts will start small and build upon themselves, eventually becoming strong enough to overcome friction and resistance and form a funnel cloud. As with most things in life, there is often a lot of luck involved as well.
If you’re ever in the area of a tornado that’s developed, listen for the warnings issued by local authorities. They will most likely tell you to get to a safe place as soon as possible. Even if you’re in the middle of nowhere, there is still a chance you might be in the path of a tornado. Being in a populated area makes you a lot more vulnerable to suffering severe damage or loss of life. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Where Do Tornadoes Form?
Once a tornado has formed, it can be extremely difficult to track. While most tornadoes that hit populated areas stay on the ground, there are some high-altitude windstorms that have been known to travel thousands of miles before dissipating.
Tornadoes form where the warm humid air in the tropics meets the cold dry air from the polar regions. Due to the different temperatures and consequent changes in pressure, the air will literally start spinning as it meets. This can cause the air around the rotating column to turn into a hurricane-like wind – with all the horrible potential that this entails.
As with most things in life, it’s preferable to be safe rather than sorry, so if you’re ever in an area where a tornado is likely to develop, it’s best to get to a safe place as soon as possible. Ideally, you should find an underground shelter or a safe room if the building you’re in starts to sway or shake. The safest course of action is to get to the highest ground possible and keep watching the sky for developing storms.
Since it’s difficult for tornadoes to form in perfectly clear conditions, those living in farm country are especially at risk of being caught in a twister. While it’s usually the case that tornadoes form in groups, this is not always the case. Sometimes they will form in seemingly unconnected areas, making it almost impossible to avoid them. If you live in or close to an area where tornadoes are likely to form, it’s best to be prepared for when the winds start blowing.
How Long Can A Tornado Last?
It’s rather difficult to say how long a tornado will last, as this largely depends on the amount of wind mass and rotational energy. The faster the initial wind speed and the closer the air is to the surface, the shorter the duration of the tornado. Similarly, a tornado that hits a mountainside will tend to dissipate more quickly than one that hits a flat prairie or plain.
Generally speaking, a tornado will remain on the ground for 15 to 30 minutes. Longer-lived tornadoes can and do happen, but this is rather rare. When a tornado does last for longer than expected, this often signifies that it has hit a mountain or other tall object. This makes it longer than usual because the wind is forced to rise as it passes over the obstruction. Once the air has cleared, the tornado will normally dissipate, though this can take some time.
Are Tornadoes Predictable?
Tornadoes are not at all predictable, as they can form from seemingly unconnected and sporadic wind events. Yet, with some study and knowledge, people can learn to predict when and where they will appear. This can help those in areas at risk of tornadoes to take precautions and be better prepared for the unpredictable nature of these violent storms.
For example, tornadoes tend to form over agricultural areas or open spaces dotted with trees. This is mainly because the wind needs something to grip as it passes over the surface. Hard surfaces like pavement or dirt provide this while wood or trees do not. Hence, places with lots of open space and few obstructions are more likely to experience this extreme weather phenomenon.
Although tornadoes can be a devastatingly dangerous force, they are also a beautiful and deadly force for nature. Without them, large cities and smaller towns alike would be blanketed in a sea of grass and green foliage. Luckily, most tornadoes that develop stay within an area that is already heavily populated, so this devastation is rarely experienced by the general public.