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Getting a Grasp on the Power of a Tornado

In recent discussions, we’ve talked about the jet stream and how the wind speed in the jet can be up to 250 mph. It was mentioned that this is nearly 100 mph faster than the winds of a category 5 hurricane. Another way to understand this airspeed is to compare it to the wind speed of a tornado and the enormous power a tornado contains.

Many people have never seen or experienced a tornado, though they can happen nearly anywhere. Some areas of the world are prone to tornadoes, however. That includes a large area of the US from the plains states to the southeast.

Tornadoes are more intense than hurricanes and typhoons and they are smaller, but the wind speed is greater. They are more localized. A strong hurricane can be over 300 miles in diameter. A strong tornado seldom covers over a mile and though it does wander, it typically doesn’t last for long.

It also needs to be understood that unlike hurricanes, the categories of tornadoes aren’t directly linked to the airspeed. Rather, the categories of tornadoes relate to the damage that is done. The wind speed has a huge impact on the damage that is done, but that isn’t how tornado categories are derived.

Tornado categories range from F0 to F5. An F1 tornado can peel off a roof and push homes off their foundations. Moving vehicles are often pushed off the road. Yet the airspeed doesn’t exceed 112 mph (180 kph).

An F4 tornado, which has wind speeds about the same as the jet stream, causes almost total destruction. Mobile homes are demolished and shredded. Big trees are snapped or uprooted. If it strikes a forest, the entire forest can be flattened, leaving nothing but dirt and debris.

Trains are blown over, cars are pickup up completely off the road and are flung around as if they weigh nothing. Houses are often either blown apart or picked up and tossed around. There are images of F4 tornadoes lifting a fully loaded semi-truck off the road and throwing it hundreds of yards. Steel railroad rails have been twisted like cooked spaghetti noodles.

Tornadoes with a wind speed of 250 mph (almost 400 kph) have been known to drive grass stalks so hard that the grass has completely penetrated 1/4 inch steel signposts.

In the aftermath of a tornado this strong, virtually nothing is left standing where the tornado actually passed. Outside of that path, there is heavy damage.

And yet, tornadoes can also do remarkable things. In one documented instance, an infant was lifted out of its crib while the house it was in was being totally demolished. The infant was then carried a half-mile and gently deposited, unharmed.

The point is that a 250 mph wind can be devastating and can obliterate nearly anything in its path. The amount of power contained in a wind of that speed is nearly unbelievable.

  • Question of

    Have you ever seen a hurricane or its aftermath first hand?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question of

    Did you realize that a 250 mph wind could be this destructive?

    • Yes
    • No

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What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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22 Comments

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  1. I had to answer no to your question, no hurricanes for me. I have seen quite a few tornadoes, living in Tornado Alley for 22 years. It’s much calmer out here on the west side. 😉 That infant story was amazing wasnt it?

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  2. I have lived through tornados directly. Watching one from less than 400 yards away. I have survived Earthquakes and Hurricanes.

    In the words of Garp, my life is disaster-proof. (sadly his wasn’t and mine isn’t either)

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    • That is a lot closer than I’ve been to a tornado. The closest I’ve been has been about a mile. I had a good vantage point to see it form, though. That was in southern Oregon in an area people thought would never have a tornado. Then again, they often talked about how unlikely it was that an earthquake would strike that area, too, and a few years after the tornado (which was only about an F1), they had a 7.2 earthquake, followed by a 7.1 aftershock. Both occurred on a previously unknown faultline that under Klamath Lake, right down the center of it.

      I’ve not gone through a hurricane.

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      • Honestly, the hurricane was the worst.

        Eather quake shook, what was that, shake again oh an Earthquake.

        Tornado was actually more scary for me when it wasn’t me. I was working in Chicago, my wife had taken the twins to the Children’s Museum in Indy. The tornado bore down on my daughter’s school.
        Literally lifted up, missed the school and destroyed 4 houses on the other side of the road.

        I heard the address of the house on the news, in downtown Chicago and was freaking out. I couldn’t reach my wife, she was stuck in traffic. I was 3 hours away at best.

        Luckily my sister was there picking up her daughter. She grabbed my daughter and called me.

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        • That would have been some terrifying and anxious moments, for sure. I’m glad that it all worked out.

          The quake we had was a strong one and both it and the aftershock lasted about a minute each. It causes substantial damage, but only two people died…one from a heart attack and the other was crushed by a boulder that was dislodged from the mountainside and crushed his truck.

          My family was with me at the time and they thankfully didn’t freak out, probably because I didn’t. Damage could have also been far worse, too, but the town was built on solid volcanic bedrock.

          The tornado mostly did damage to agricultural fields. It stripped them bare.

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  3. I am surprised that your first question asks about hurricanes when the topic is about tornadoes – did you mean this?

    Tornadoes do happen sometimes in the UK, but they are tiny affairs when compared with what can happen in your part of the world. We just don’t get weather events that are truly destructive – and we don’t get earthquakes, volcanoes or dangerous animals such as bears or snakes, either!

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    • You are entirely correct. I meant tornadoes.

      I live within the blast zone for the Yellowstone supervolcano, but I live a fair distance from areas known for earthquakes. That isn’t to say that they don’t and can’t happen, but they normally aren’t major in Montana. Of course, if the supervolcano blew, we’d probably also feel earthquakes…if anyone was alive to feel them. Bears and snakes (and wolverines and mountain lions and bobcats and lynxes) we do have, but except for the snakes, they aren’t often sighted. I’m actually more concerned with being bitten by someone’s dog or a stray. 🙂

    • Tornadoes are rare in England, but they do happen. Tornadoes are also rare in Montana, but again, they can happen. In the southeastern US, though, they aren’t at all unusual and they usually are large and very powerful ones.

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