9 Things You Don't Know About Tornadoes

A nameless tornado sails through near the Colorado and Oklahoma border. Todd Shoemake/Shutterstock

Spawned from thunderstorms, the violent rotating columns of air known as tornadoes can reach wind speeds up to 300 miles per hour and can leave a path of destruction like few other forces of nature. Tornadoes have kick. Like an angry Greek god, they can shatter buildings, drive straws through trees, lift trains from tracks, and suck the water out of streams.

The United States experiences around 1,200 tornadoes a year, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. And while we all know that tornadoes can transport young girls to Munchkin City, there's a whole slew of less well-known facts that are nearly as interesting.

1. F is for Fujita

Tornado strength is classified by the Fujita Tornado Scale, or F-scale (and the Enhanced Fujita scale, or EF scale.) The scale was developed by Tetsuya Theodore Fujita of the University of Chicago. Known as "Mr. Tornado" to his peers and the media, Fujita is credited for having discovered microbursts and downbursts, which can pose serious danger to aircraft. As a result of his work, pilot training across the world uses techniques he developed. You can learn more about Fujita, who died in 1998, in the video above.

2. Tornadoes are anonymous

Pity the tornado. While hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are all dignified with names, the tornado comes and goes with nary a moniker. Why? Although some historic tornadoes are named relative to their location, in general tornadoes are too short-lived to require naming. For tropical cyclones (the family that hurricanes are included in) the use of easy, distinctive names is quicker and less subject to error than the antiquated, more unwieldy latitude-longitude identification methods — which is especially important in communicating detailed storm information to the media and between the multitude of coastal bases and ships at sea. Tornadoes don't require such distinction.

3. Where tornadoes dare not go

Although the majority of the world's tornadoes take place in the United States, they have been observed on every continent except Antarctica.

4. Deadliest American tornado traveled for 220 miles

The deadliest tornado in U.S. history was the Tri-State Tornado, which made its debut on March 18, 1925. It began its journey in Missouri and rolled across the land for nearly 220 miles, visiting Illinois and Indiana along the way. In some areas, it left a path of destruction almost a mile wide. The Tri-State Tornado hurtled through nine towns and splintered thousands of homes. The tornado caused 695 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries.

Here's some of the early coverage:

Newspaper coverage of the Tri-State tornado in 1925.
Newspaper coverage of the Tri-State Tornado in 1925. Wikipedia

5. World's most lethal tornado was in ... Bangladesh?

Oddly enough, the deadliest tornado in history wasn't in the United States. For those of us who equate the image of a dusty funnel roaming across fields dotted with farmhouses, this may be hard to picture. However, the Daulatpur-Saturia, Bangladesh tornado which took place on April 26, 1989, was extraordinary in its destruction. Death toll counts were hard to calculate, but estimates indicate that some 1,300 people were killed, making it the world's deadliest tornado.

6. A tornado saved Washington, D.C.

During the burning of Washington in the War of 1812, a powerful tornado struck northwest Washington and downtown on the day the British troops set fire to the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings. Rain from the storm extinguished the fires, and more British soldiers were killed by the tornado than by the guns of the American resistance.

7. Southern and Northern hemisphere tornadoes spin differently

Tornadoes in the Northern Hemisphere, as viewed from above, rotate counterclockwise 98 percent of the time. Southern Hemisphere tornados rotate clockwise.

8. Tornadoes come in many colors

Tornado clouds can appear colorful at sunset.
Tornado clouds can appear colorful at sunset. helloabc/Shutterstock

Tornadoes come in a wide array of colors, based on the environment in which they form. Tornadoes in dry environments are nearly invisible, while condensation funnels are generally gray to white. When traveling over water, tornadoes can become opaque white or blue. Ponderous ones that consume a decent amount of debris are usually darker and assume the color of the debris. Great Plains tornadoes are often red because of the tint of the soil. Lighting also affect the color of a tornado. A back-lit tornado with the sun behind it will appear very dark, yet the same tornado viewed from the other side may appear gray or brilliant white. Sunset tornadoes can appear yellow, orange and pink.

9. Nothing says 'go team' like a tornado

According to mascotdb.com, there are 65 high school, college, amateur and pro teams that use "Tornadoes" or a variation as their nickname.