Deep South of United States Ravaged by Tornadoes

tornadoes wreak havoc in texas, louisiana, oklahoma, mississippi

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Tornadoes caused damage in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and other states, last week. Multiple deaths, dozens of injuries, and tremendous property damage were reported as a vicious storm front tore through the South. Tornadoes create Earth’s strongest winds.

Two tornadoes in plain field
Tornadoes are first identified by seeing their distinctive funnel-shaped cloud and its rotating column of wind that usually contains dust and debris. Photo by Eugene R Thieszen / Shutterstock

A storm early last week attacked Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, in which tornadoes wrought havoc across the American South. Reports and videos of intense tornadoes came in from Austin to multiple parishes in New Orleans starting March 21, with cleanup beginning later in the week. Resultant floodwaters and storms caused damage as far as Alabama.

Most of us have seen tornadoes rip homes apart and pluck heavy motor vehicles from the ground into the sky—on pre-recorded video, if we’re lucky. However, tornadoes produce some of the strongest winds on Earth. In his video series The Science of Extreme Weather, Professor Eric R. Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, lays out what tornadoes really are—and aren’t.

Defining Tornadoes

“A simple Google image search of the word ‘tornado’ often turns up pictures of hurricanes, dust devils, water spouts, fire vortices, and other various computer-generated or Photoshopped images, none of which are tornadoes,” Professor Snodgrass said. “A tornado is defined as a rapidly rotating column of air that is attached to both the base of the cloud and to the ground.”

According to Professor Snodgrass, funnel clouds—which are named for their shape—are visible because they draw water from the clouds to which they’re connected. They also come in many shapes and sizes, leading meteorologists to come up with such nicknames as elephant trunks, stovepipes, and wedges.

“Of these, the wedge tornado is probably the most feared,” he said. “These tornadoes are wider than they are tall. One of the most famous wedge tornadoes hit El Reno, Oklahoma, in May 2013, which produced winds near 300 miles an hour. This tornado set the record for the widest tornado observed, at 2.6 miles in diameter.”

Scientists have studied tornadoes for 100 years, resulting in profiles for tens of thousands of them. This data has taught us that an average tornado is 250 yards wide at its base and produces winds of 110 miles per hour, lasting about 10 minutes. However, as the saying goes, it’s a long 10 minutes.

When “America Is #1” Isn’t So Great

“The United States leads the world in tornadoes, but other countries experience them, as well,” Professor Snodgrass said. “Most of Europe, parts of China, India, Japan, Australia, and small pockets of Africa have tornadoes. In South America, intense tornadoes are concentrated in Argentina and the southern tip of Brazil.”

According to Professor Snodgrass, the European Severe Storms Laboratory has been keeping accurate records of tornadoes in Europe and Western Russia, and that all of Europe combined makes up the second largest amount of tornadoes on average—approximately 300 per year, he said. Canada experiences 5% of the world’s tornadoes, mostly in the southern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

“However, the United States is home to 75% of the world’s tornadoes,” Professor Snodgrass said. “The U.S.’s unique geography, combined with our mid-latitude location, makes it the global gathering place for tornadic activity.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily