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Tornadoes

While a tornado may last for only a short while, it can wreak unimaginable damage during its brief lifetime. And the frequency of tornadoes makes up for their brevity—the United States experiences more than 600 tornadoes on average a year!

Tornado Facts

  • The wind speed of an EF-5 tornado can reach almost half the speed of sound.
  • On March 18, 1925, the “Tri-State Tornado” spanned three states and lasted from 1:00-4:30 pm, leaving some 15,000 homes destroyed. If is both the deadliest and the longest-lasting tornado on record.
  • Tornadoes occur most often during evening rush hour (between 3:00 and 7:00 pm).
  • Opening windows and doors is, in fact, not recommended during a tornado. This is an old myth based on the belief that this would equalize pressure in a building.

Tornado Images

This exhibition and its national tour were developed by The Field Museum, Chicago

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Oklahoma Tornado

This tornado struck outside of Union City, Oklahoma, on May 24, 1973.

It was the first tornado captured by the National Severe Storms Laboratory doppler radar and NSSL chase personnel.

© NOAA Photo Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) ×

MIAMI TORNADO

Tornadoes never strike big cities, right? Tell that to Miami, where a tornado made its way through the downtown area on May 12, 1997. Tornadoes can strike anywhere, even in urban areas—including Chicago, Nashville, Houston, St. Louis, and Washington D.C., just to name a few.

© Miami Herald/Getty Images ×

A DUST DEVIL

Just because it twists doesn't mean it's a twister. A dust devil is a spiraling column of wind that can rise from the ground in hot, dry areas, lifting up dust and debris

© NASA ×

PROFESSOR TED FUJITA

After a tornado, meteorologists look at the damage it caused to estimate its wind speeds, then assign it a numerical ranking of EF0 through EF5. The "E" stands for "Enhanced" and the "F" stands for "Fujita," the name of the tornado researcher—Tetsuya Theodore "Ted" Fujita—who developed the original scale in 1971.

© AP Photo/University of Chicago ×

GREENSBURG SURVIVOR

Jill Sommerfeld is seen here salvaging items from her parent's destroyed home in Greensburg, Kansas. While Greensburg's homes, businesses, and leafy streets did not survive the May 2007 tornado, all of its residents did. They survived because they had warning, they were prepared, and they knew how to respond.

© Charlie Riedel/AP Photo ×

Stormchasing

Severe storm researchers track down tornadoes to record information about their wind speed, air pressure, humidity, temperature, and wind direction—information that can be used to make people safer.

Researcher Tim Samaras had designed a special "probe" outfitted with cameras and an audio recorder that is built to stay put in a twister.

© Photo courtesy of Tim Samaras ×