8 Terrifying Types of Tornadoes and Whirlwinds

Unique features make these storms all the more nightmarish.

Storm chasing twin tornadoes
Twin tornadoes near Pender, Nebraska, in June 2014.

NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015 / Flickr / CC By 2.0

When you think of a tornado, a classic cone-shaped funnel likely comes to mind. But tornadoes can assume a myriad of shapes and exhibit eerie features and behaviors, making these already menacing monsters all the more nightmarish. Here are some of the most terrifying tornadoes and wind circulations to scan the skies for. Plus, learn about the unique dangers they pose.

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Rope Tornado

A rope tornado crosses a dirt road in the Great Plains

Mdesigner125 / Getty Images

Like their namesake, rope tornadoes feature twists and bends in their long, thin condensation funnels. Their dents and wiggles can form when cool outflow air flowing from a thundercloud's rain and hail shaft hit the tornado, weakening its instability (heat and moisture) and vorticity (air spin) in certain spots. (It's why tornadoes tend to "rope out" during the early and late stages of their life cycles. However, they can also remain narrow like this for their entire lifetimes.)

In addition to being squiggly, rope tornadoes are also generally small-sized. Some can measure under 30 feet wide—likely smaller than the width of your house.

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Rain-Wrapped Tornado

A rain-wrapped tornado

Mike Hollingshead / Getty Images

As the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Amarillo, Texas, explains, if a tornado forms from a "high precipitation" supercell thunderstorm—a supercell that sits in an environment where there's high moisture content and lighter winds moving into the storm—it can be rain-wrapped, or hidden by a thunderstorm's heavy rainfall.

Because it's difficult to spot rain-wrapped tornadoes from a distance, they can be more deadly than ordinary tornadoes. They often take motorists and residents by surprise, especially when these already-cloaked tornadoes are further cloaked by nightfall.

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Satellite Tornado

Storm chasing twin tornadoes

NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015 / Flickr / CC By 2.0

Much like a weather satellite orbits the Earth, a satellite tornado revolves around a larger, "main" tornado. While it's a separate, secondary tornado, both it and the primary funnel develop from the same parent mesocyclone.

Because satellite tornadoes are rare and not well-documented, their characteristics and causes remain largely unknown. But according to a study done by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, they tend to be associated with strong to violent (EF4 and EF5) main tornadoes, yet are fairly weak EF0- to EF2-rated twisters themselves.

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Multi-Vortex Tornado

A multiple-vortex tornado travels across flat land
Multiple vortices isn't the same thing as multiple, but separate tornadoes.

Mike Hollingshead / Getty Images

A multiple-vortex tornado has two or more vortices (called "subvortices") swirling inside of a single tornado. Eventually, the vortices, which typically occur in groups of two to five, may combine into one larger tornado. According to eyewitnesses, multi-vortex twisters are similar to hurricanes in that there is a short lull between the passage of each vortex.

Missouri's 2011 EF5 Joplin tornado was a multi-vortex storm.

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Wedge Tornado

A wide, wedge tornado touches down at sunset

Heather Paul / Getty Images

If a tornado appears wider than it is tall, or resembles an upside-down pyramid, it's likely a wedge. Their sooty color comes from the considerable amount of dirt and debris they ingest.

Wedges tend to be violent EF3, EF4, and EF5 storms, as is the case with the 2013 El Reno, Oklahoma tornado, which rated an EF3 on the Enhanced-Fujita scale. At 2.6 miles across, it's the largest tornado in U.S. weather history (a record it still holds as of the publication of this article).

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Waterspout

Twin waterspouts dance across a lake

JazzIRT / Getty Images

While some waterspouts are literally tornadoes that form over water (their dangers include high surf, hail, and frequent lightning), others form from rainclouds that lack a rotating updraft, or mesocyclone. Still, seeing one can be jarring, especially if you've only ever seen them on dry land.

And in case you're wondering, yes, they can move onshore.

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Dust Devil

A dust devil whirls across a crop field on a clear day

Lucas Ninno / Getty Images

Dust devils can be jarring to see because they mimic the shape and swirling movement of tornadoes, yet they form under clear, sunny skies. They spin up when the ground warms sufficiently hotter than the air several hundred feet above it, thereby creating an updraft of rising air.

Despite their mischievous appearance and name, though, these hot-weather whirlwinds are generally harmless. If dust devils grow particularly large, though, their wind speeds can reach 60 miles per hour—fast enough to hurl debris and do light property damage.

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Fire Whirl

Fire tornado

Chris Tangey / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fire whirls are another updraft-related whirlwind, except their updrafts are created by the extreme heat of fire rather than solar heating.

According to the NWS, they tower usually about one to three feet wide and can tower 50 to 100 feet tall. Their dangers have less to do with their actual vortex and more to do with their ability to lift lightweight burning materials, such as tree bark, airborne.

View Article Sources
  1. "Tornadoes FAQ." NOAA National Weather Service.

  2. "What Is A Supercell?NOAA National Weather Service.

  3. Edwards, Roger. Characteristics of Supercellular Satellite Tornadoes. Storm Prediction Center, Norman.

  4. "The May 31, 2013 El Reno, OK Tornado." NOAA National Weather Service.