Types of Tornadoes: Understanding Earth’s Twisters

Dramatic storm clouds from a supercell thunderstorm over a field near Sidney, Montana, USA.

Tornadoes aren’t all the same – there are various types with unique characteristics.

This guide delves into the world of tornadoes, examining their classifications, behaviors, and how to stay safe.

Before we explore different tornado types, let’s understand the Fujita and Enhanced Fujita scales, commonly used for classification.

The Fujita Scale

The Fujita Scale, named after its creator Dr. Tetsuya Theodore Fujita, is a widely recognized system used to rate the intensity of a tornado.

It ranges from F0, which represents very light damage, to F5, indicating incredible devastation.

This rating is based on the level of destruction caused by the tornado rather than the actual wind speed.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale

The Enhanced Fujita Scale, or EF-Scale, was implemented in 2007 to replace the original scale.

This revised scale provides a more accurate assessment by taking into account the quality of construction and the materials used in the buildings damaged by the tornado.

It ranges from EF0, representing light damage, to EF5, indicating total destruction.

Different Types of Tornadoes

Supercell Tornadoes

Supercell thunderstorm with dramatic storm clouds at sunset during a severe weather outbreak in Kansas.

Supercell tornadoes are the most dangerous type. They form from supercell thunderstorms and are known for their long duration and violent winds.

These tornadoes can cause extensive damage and often spawn smaller satellite tornadoes.

Landspout Tornadoes

Twin funnels clouds from a pair of landspout tornadoes beneath a summer storm near St. Francis, Kansas.

Landspout tornadoes, also known as dust-tube tornadoes, are typically weaker than supercell tornadoes. They form during the early stages of a thunderstorm and do not require a pre-existing rotation to develop.

Although they may look similar to supercell tornadoes, their mechanism of formation and structure are different.

Waterspout Tornadoes

Two water spouts are over the ocean in a dark cloudy sky .

Waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water. They are generally less intense than land tornadoes but can pose serious threats to boats and coastal areas.

There are two types: tornadic waterspouts (which are essentially regular tornadoes that happen to form over water) and fair-weather waterspouts (which form in calmer weather conditions).

Multiple Vortex Tornadoes

Multiple vortex tornadoes contain several smaller whirlwinds (known as subvortices) rotating inside the main vortex.

These subvortices can enhance the overall intensity of the tornado and increase the potential for damage.

Satellite Tornadoes

Satellite tornadoes occur when a smaller tornado forms near a larger one, rotating around the same center.

Despite their smaller size, satellite tornadoes can be just as destructive and should be taken seriously.

Tornado Formation

Tornadoes form from severe thunderstorms in a type of weather pattern called a supercell. They require warm, moist air from lower altitudes to mix with cooler, dry air above.

This creates instability, and when combined with wind shear, can create a rotating updraft known as a mesocyclone. If this mesocyclone reaches the ground, it becomes a tornado.

Tornado Intensity

Another amazing tornado picture of the famous F5 tornado that impacted Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007.

The intensity of a tornado is determined by its wind speed and the extent of the damage it causes.

While the actual wind speeds within a tornado are difficult to measure, estimations can be made based on the damage caused.

However, it’s important to remember that even lower-intensity tornadoes can cause significant damage and pose serious risks to safety.

Tornado Damage

The damage caused by a tornado can vary greatly depending on its intensity, duration, and the structures it encounters.

Damage can range from minor roof damage and broken windows to completely flattened buildings and uprooted trees.

In addition to physical destruction, tornadoes can also cause long-term emotional distress for those affected.

Recognizing Tornado Warning Signs

Recognizing the warning signs of a tornado can save lives.

These signs include a dark, often greenish sky; large, low-lying clouds; a loud roar similar to a freight train; and a sudden calm or quiet period following a thunderstorm.

Additionally, frequent lightning and hail are common in storms that produce tornadoes.

Safety Measures During a Tornado

Tornado Season Ahead Caution Sign With Tornado Background

When a tornado is imminent, seek shelter immediately, ideally in a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of your building.

Stay away from windows and doors, cover yourself with blankets or mattresses to protect against flying debris, and always listen to local authorities and weather services for updates.

Tornado Forecasting and Climatology

Tornado forecasting involves predicting the likelihood of tornado formation based on atmospheric conditions.

Accurate prediction relies on sophisticated technology like Doppler radar systems, which can detect rotation within storms, and computer models that simulate future weather scenarios.

Tornado Climatology


Tornado climatology studies the historical patterns and trends of tornado occurrences.

This includes understanding how variables such as geography, time of year, and climate influence tornado activity.

For instance, Tornado Alley in the U.S. sees more tornadoes than other regions due to its unique geographical and climatic conditions.

Tornado Alley, Season, and Chasers

Tornado Alley

Tornado Alley is a colloquial term for an area in the central United States where tornadoes are most frequent.

This region includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The specific atmospheric conditions that occur in this area, such as the meeting of warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico with cool dry air from the Rockies, make it especially prone to tornado development.

Tornado Season

Tornado season refers to the time of year when tornadoes are most likely to occur.

In the U.S., this generally falls in spring and early summer, though tornadoes can happen at any time of the year.

The season varies regionally, with southern states typically experiencing an earlier peak than northern states.

Tornado Chasers

Tornado chasers are individuals or groups who track and follow tornadoes for the purpose of observation, scientific research, or simply the thrill of the chase.

They play a crucial role in gathering data about tornadoes that further our understanding and improve forecasting techniques.

However, it is a high-risk activity and should only be undertaken by those with appropriate knowledge and experience.

Tornado Research, Myths, Facts, History, and Aftermath

Latest Discoveries

Recent advances in tornado research have led to improvements in prediction accuracy and lead times.

These include using dual-polarization radar which provides more detailed information about storm structure, and the development of high-resolution computer models that simulate individual thunderstorms and their potential to produce tornadoes.

Debunking Common Tornado Myths

One common myth is that opening windows will equalize pressure and prevent a house from exploding during a tornado.

This is false; it only results in more debris and potential harm. Another myth is that tornadoes can’t cross bodies of water or hills.

Tornadoes can indeed cross these obstacles, though their paths can be influenced by the landscape.

Sharing Fascinating Tornado Facts

Ontario, Canada agricultural field

Tornadoes are one of nature’s most powerful and fascinating phenomena.

Did you know that a tornado’s wind speeds can exceed 300 miles per hour, making it one of the planet’s strongest winds?

Or that the USA experiences more than 1,000 tornadoes a year, more than any other country?

Notable Tornadoes

The history of tornadoes is marked by some truly devastating events.

The Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which passed through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, is considered one of the deadliest in U.S. history, causing 695 deaths.

More recently, the 2011 Tornado Super Outbreak spawned over 300 tornadoes across the Southern, Midwestern, and Northeastern United States in just three days.

Typical Tornado Aftermath

The aftermath of a tornado can be a scene of widespread destruction, with buildings destroyed, trees uprooted, and vehicles tossed around.

Recovery involves not only physical rebuilding but also addressing the emotional trauma experienced by survivors.

Crisis response teams, community support, and federal aid all play important roles in helping communities recover and rebuild.

FAQs about Different Tornadoes

What type of tornado is most dangerous?

Supercell thunderstorm with dramatic storm clouds and sky during a severe weather event in Malta, Montana.

Supercell tornadoes are typically the most dangerous type due to their size, longevity, and often intense wind speeds. They can cause extensive damage and pose a high risk to lives and property.

Which tornadoes are stronger?

In terms of wind speed and potential for destruction, supercell tornadoes are generally considered stronger than other types.

However, it’s important to remember that any tornado can be dangerous and cause significant damage.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.