A tornado is a terrifying extreme weather event that causes incredibly high winds, and a centralized large column of air that twists around on the ground, destroying anything in its way, including homes and buildings.
They’ve even been known to rip trees up from the ground and toss them around. Knowing how fast a tornado moves is crucial to understanding the potential damage and preparing for its impact.
In this article, we’ll explore the speeds at which tornadoes can travel and examine some of the factors that can impact their velocity. So read on to learn more about these incredible forces of nature!
How Are Tornadoes Formed?
A lot of the time, this collision can cause heavy winds, rains, or thunderstorms. However, every so often, this creates a tornado. When the warm air starts to rise through the cold air, this creates an updraft.
The updraft will begin to rotate if the winds happen to vary sharply in either speed or direction. This creates more treacherous winds that cause more of an updraft, and very quickly this air can form into a tornado.
Once they move over the colder ground, or once the clouds have begun to break up then the tornado will start to die off. However, it’s not completely understood how tornados actually form, grow, and die.
Sometimes twisters will last only a couple of seconds and not cause much trouble, however, they have also been known to last for hours. They can move in any direction, and cause untold damage to people and properties.
How Fast Does A Tornado Move?
One of the most significant factors that influence a tornado’s speed is the strength of the storm system that creates it. It’s a bit like a race car – the better the engine, the faster the car can go. Similarly, the stronger the storm system, the faster the tornado can travel.
To understand these swirling monsters better, it’s important to differentiate between two key measures: wind speed and forward speed.
Wind speed is the measure of how fast the tornado’s rotating winds are moving. It’s what makes these destructive spirals so dangerous, with wind speeds that can exceed 250 mph (402.34 km/h) in the most powerful tornadoes. That’s a lot of force that can rip buildings apart and toss cars around like toys.
Meanwhile, forward speed is the speed at which the entire tornado is moving across the ground. This is the measure you’ll typically hear when a tornado is approaching an area. Knowing this speed can help people estimate how long they have until the tornado arrives and plan accordingly.
But here’s the thing: wind speed and forward speed don’t always go hand in hand. While it’s true that stronger tornadoes usually move faster, the wind speed within the tornado can vary greatly. So, a tornado can have a relatively low wind speed but move quickly, or vice versa.
As mentioned above, wind speed refers to how fast the air spins within a tornado, and it’s measured on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale. The EF scale rates tornadoes from EF0, with wind speeds of 65-85 mph, to EF5, with wind speeds over 200 mph.
You can probably guess that wind speeds of 100 mph or higher are extremely dangerous. They can cause significant damage to buildings, vehicles, and other structures. But in the strongest tornadoes, wind speeds can exceed 200 mph, causing catastrophic damage and putting lives at risk.
The EF scale is a useful tool for determining the strength of a tornado. It takes into account both wind speed and the resulting damage to structures. So, an EF2 tornado with wind speeds between 111-135 mph may cause significant damage to buildings, while an EF5 tornado with wind speeds over 200 mph can completely destroy well-built structures.
Measuring tornado wind speed can be a challenging task. Researchers use specialized instruments like Doppler radar to estimate wind speed based on the rotation of air within the tornado. But it’s not always a precise measurement, and actual wind speeds may be higher or lower than the estimates.
The forward speed is the speed at which the eye of the tornado moves across the ground, and can be completely different from the wind speeds that encompass the tornado.
Typically, the higher the wind speeds, the more damage it’s going to cause since it’s so powerful.
However, if you pair this with a slow forward speed, then you’re in real danger because it will take a long time for the tornado to pass, giving it more time to destroy your property.
There was a tornado in Tennessee in 2020. The recorded wind speeds were up to 175 mph, but the recorded forward speed was 50mph.
Recorded Forward Speeds
Forward speeds aren’t always documented because they can be difficult to gauge. However, here are a few examples of forward speeds that have been recorded and the damages that these twisters caused.
- Recorded in 1925, a major tornado ripped through the Tri-State area, particularly Missouri. This tornado killed nearly 700 people and injured 2,000. The forward speed of this catastrophic event was 70mph (112.65 km/h), whilst the wind speeds reached over 300mph (482.8 km/h). It traveled 219 miles (352.45 km) in over three hours whilst the diameter of the center was over a mile. This tornado was an F5 and is the deadliest tornado in American History, and the second deadliest in world history.
- Faster than that, the 1974 tornado in Guin, AL moved at a whopping 75mph (120.7 km/h), just marginally faster than the Tri-State tornado, but much less deadly.
- On the other side of the spectrum, the 2013 Moore Tornado that all but destroyed Moore, OK reached winds of up to 210mph (337.96 km/h), however, the forward speed was only averaging 9mph (14.48 km/h), topping out at about 15 mph (24.14 km/h). This twister killed 24 people and injured 212 more.
How fast a tornado moves can vary widely depending on factors such as the size, strength, and direction of movement of the parent thunderstorm. However, according to Iowa State University, the average forward wind speed of a tornado is around 30 mph (48 km/h), although they can range from nearly stationary to over 70 mph (113 km/h).
Stopping A Tornado
The first thing that you should know is that there is no documented way to actually stop a tornado. Many people have experimented with many things, however, there are no ways to stop a tornado in its path.
All you can do is get out of its way and find shelter. A tornado will eventually stop on its own, you just have to wait.
The source of a tornado is generally a supercell or a large thunderstorm, so you just have to wait until it stops giving the twister as much power. When the air is able to move higher, it changes the direction and speed of the tornado.
So, in higher altitudes, winds can move much faster than low altitude winds, increasing the strength of the tornado.
Once the tornado reaches its peak, it will start to die down, and this can be completely dependent on the humidity, terrain, strength, and size of the tornado. This means that the twister can reach its peak and start to dissipate at any time.
However, it is believed that the weakening of tornadoes can happen when the cold air undercuts a warm updraft. Because of the weakened flow and the air getting cooled, the strength begins to slow, dissipating the tornado.
How To Stay Safe During A Tornado?
Unless you’re a thrill seeker or suicidal, there is no reason to try to get close to a tornado. If there is one heading your way and you’re in your home or otherwise in a building, here is what you have to do:
First of all, get away from the windows. They’re likely to shatter and you don’t want to be anywhere near them if and when they do.
Get down to the lowest floor of the building that you can, including a basement, and try to cover yourself with a mattress or thick blanket, anything that’s going to protect you from any falling debris.
If instead, you’re inside a vehicle, try to drive perpendicular to the direction that the twister is going. Driving away from it is pointless because there’s no way that you can outdrive the wind speeds. Try to find shelter as soon as you’re able.
However, if there’s nowhere to go, remain in your car and keep your seatbelt on. You’re more likely to survive being blown about if you’re in a car than if you’re completely exposed.
Crouch low in your seat like you’re in the crash position in an airplane. This way if the windows break they won’t get in your face. You won’t be completely safe, but you can minimize damage by following these steps.
Finally, if you’re on foot outdoors, really try to find shelter immediately, however, if you can’t, you need to try to find an area that is away from any trees or cars because these can get thrown around and at you by the tornado.
Be sure to lay flat, face down on the ground, putting your arms over your head in order to protect yourself. Remember, your head is the most important part of your body and must be protected at all times. (Also see ‘What Happens When You’re Picked Up By A Tornado? (Health And Safety Advice)‘).
Tornadoes are some of the most destructive and awe-inspiring forces of nature. How fast a tornado moves depends on a variety of factors, including the strength of the storm system that creates it, the wind speed within the tornado, and the forward speed at which it moves across the ground.
So, the next time you hear that tornado warning siren, remember to pay attention to both the wind speed and forward speed and take appropriate precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones.