30 Key Tornado Facts: From Science to Safety

, Staff Writer
Updated January 12, 2021
tornado in field in minnesota USA
    tornado in field in minnesota USA
    Chad Cowan / n: 500px Prime / Getty Images
    Used under Getty Images license

Tornadoes are terrifying and all-too-common weather occurrences. Discover important tornado facts so you have an understanding of what tornadoes are as well as how to keep yourself safe if you experience a tornado.

Basic Facts About Tornadoes

Tornadoes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are many different ways to describe a tornado and its impacts. Note: The records mentioned below are accurate as of January 2021.

  • Tornadoes are rotating, funnel-shaped clouds that extend from thunderstorms. When they reach the ground, they can cause significant destruction.
  • Tornados are usually formed from supercell thunderstorms. They often precede frontal systems or occur during hurricane landfall.
  • With an average of more than 1,200 tornadoes per year, the United States (U.S.) has more tornado activity than any other country.
  • In the U.S., tornadoes are most common in central "Tornado Alley" states and southeastern "Dixie Alley" states.
  • Every U.S. state has been impacted by at least one tornado.
  • Antarctica is the only continent on Earth that has never experienced a tornado.
  • Tornadoes can occur at any time of year, but are most common during summer and spring.
  • Tornadoes can happen at any time of the day or night, though the majority take place during late afternoon or evening hours.
  • Tornadoes can be transparent. Most of what you see when looking at a tornado is dust and debris picked up by the funnel cloud as it moves.
  • Tornadoes can stay on the ground for 50 miles or more, though they can also touch down and go back up almost immediately.
  • The average traveling speed of a tornado is 30 miles per hour (mph). They can move up to 60 mph or be nearly motionless.
  • Most tornadoes move from the southwest to the northeast, though they can actually move from any direction.
  • Tornado width is measured by the size of their damage path, which can range from around 50 yards to more than two miles.
  • In 2013, a 2.6 mile-wide tornado was recorded in El Reno, Oklahoma, which remains the widest tornado on record.
  • The Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale is used to classify tornado strength based on wind speed. The lowest classification, EF-0, begins at 65 mph. The highest classification, EF-5, applies to tornadoes with wind speeds above 200 mph.
  • In 1999, the wind speed of a tornado in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma (near Oklahoma City) was clocked at 302 mph. It is the highest tornado speed recorded by Doppler radar.

Tornado Safety Facts

Everyone who could be impacted by a tornado should know and follow key tornado safety tips. Make sure you can separate tornado facts and myths to help stay safe in an emergency situation.

  • Keep fresh batteries in a battery-operated weather radio for access to weather reports if the power goes out or the internet goes down.
  • Make an emergency plan with your family, being sure that everyone knows where to go in the event of a tornado.
  • Keep a packed emergency supply kit in the area where you expect to ride out a storm in your home.
  • If you work or go to school outside of the home, identify the best places to go during a tornado.
  • If you are indoors when a tornado is near, go to the lowest level of the building, such as a basement, storm shelter or the first floor of the structure.
  • Assuming you don't have a basement or storm shelter, go to a small inner area with no windows, such as a closet, bathroom or hallway.
  • If there is no space available without windows, go to the center of the room as far away from the windows as possible.
  • Cover yourself as best as possible, such as with cushions, blankets, sleeping bags, a mattress, other items. If a sturdy piece of furniture is available, hold on it it.
  • Protect your head and neck with your arms.
  • If you are outdoors when a tornado threatens, go inside if at all possible.
  • If you are not able to get indoors, get as low as you can. For example, the safest options might be to lie down in a ditch or to crouch beside a sturdy structure.
  • If you are in a car when a tornado approaches, you should get out of the car and seek shelter in a building or low area.
  • Do not stay in a parked car during a tornado. Do not ever try to outrun a tornado in a vehicle. Tornadoes can pick up and toss even very heavy vehicles.
  • Do not assume you are out of harm's way if it seems the tornado is moving away from you. Tornadoes can change directions quickly and without warning.

Weather Events Similar to Tornadoes

A few other weather phenomena are very similar to tornadoes.

  • waterspouts - Waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water. Some stay over water and some move onto land. Once on land, they behave just like a traditionally formed tornado.
  • fire tornadoes - While they are not common, fire tornadoes do occur. They are not a traditional tornado, but rather result from intensely hot air being pushed up from the ground and rotating during a wildfire. Things like smoke, fire and dirt end up getting pulled into the circulation.

Respect the Power of Tornadoes

Now that you are aware of some key tornado facts and tornado safety strategies, it should be easy to understand why it's so important to respect the power of these fierce weather events. It's important to be ready to stay safe not only in a tornado but also in other weather emergencies. Make sure you're aware of all types of weather conditions common to your area.