Where do they come from?
Tornadoes come from the energy inside of a severe thunderstorm cell. As monstrous as they are, tornadoes account for only a tiny fraction of the energy in a thunderstorm. What makes them dangerous is that their energy is in a small area, perhaps only a hundred yards across. Not all tornadoes are the same.
Where do they occur?
Tornadoes occur wherever the conditions are perfect. Tornadoes can happen anywhere in the US, but are most common on the Plain States, east of the Rocky Mountains and west of Virginia. That doesn't mean a tornado can't hit you. A F5 tornado hit La Plata, Maryland, just 30 miles south of Washington DC.
What type of damage can they do?
First of all, damage does not come from a house exploding from the pressure from the tornado. The damage comes from the winds of a tornado. Damage can range from tree limbs broken to whole houses picked up off its foundation and flown for 10 miles. Damage levels can be found by clicking here.
How are they detected?
Tornadoes are detected by Doppler Radar or by human sightings. That's what a Tornado Warning means.
Can they be predicted?
Yes, but it is hard and limited. When we try to predict a tornado, we look for explosive severe thunderstorms, high temperatures, high humidity, extremely low pressure, and lift. But sometimes one or two ingredients may be missing, but tornadoes still form.
How can I keep myself safe?
To summarize, the main point is to be protected from flying and falling debris. A storm shelter is your best choice, if you have one. If you have a basement, go there and get under something sturdy to shelter you from falling debris. If you have no basement or storm shelter, go to an inner room without windows on the first floor of your home. Bathrooms are a good choice because the plumbing reinforces the walls. Closets are also a good choice since they normally have no windows. Stay away from windows entirely! Leave windows alone completely and get to a safe place immediately! If you live in a mobile home, it should be abandoned! Seek shelter in a neighboring house or, better yet, a storm shelter. If you are in a motor vehicle in a populated area, do not try to drive away from a tornado; abandon your vehicle and seek shelter nearby immediately!
If you are traveling in a rural area, drive away from the tornado at a right angle to its path. If caught in the open, get down in a sheltered low spot, and cover your head with your arms! Hang on to something. If you are at school or work, your school or workplace should have an approved tornado safety plan, which you should follow. If no such plan exists, complain to someone that a plan needs to be developed!! Knowing what to do in a specific situation means you are less likely to panic and do something dangerous without realizing it. Have a plan in your family about what you would do, and follow it exactly, including where you will go if you are separated.
If you hear a tornado warning, you should seek immediate shelter and not waste precious seconds to see if it is true for you!
What is the smallest, largest, typical size?
The typical tornado damage path is about one or two miles, with a width of about 50 yards. The largest tornado path widths can exceed one mile, and the smallest widths can be less than 10 yards. Widths can vary considerably during a single tornado, because the size of the tornado can change considerably during its lifetime. Path lengths can vary from what is basically a single point to more than 100 miles. Note that tornado intensity (the peak wind speeds) are not necessarily related to the tornado size ... bigger is not necessarily stronger!
How long is a tornado usually on the ground?
This time can range from an instant to several hours. What is typical is 5 minutes or so.
How do I know if it is a tornado or just a funnel?
A tornado is a vortex that is on the ground. A funnel is a vortex that off or not on the ground.
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