Destructive Transformation of Energy: The Anatomy of a Tornado

Michael Cerkas's picture

The paradox of Mother Nature is that what adorns us with the beauty and grace of flowers, rainbows, sunsets, mountains and fragrances, also unexpectedly creates a destructive force so powerful it can literally cause physical fabrications to vaporize and disappear.

The tornado represents one of the most violent and destructive forces known to mankind. It is on a par with earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and wildfires. The tornado is an untenable natural phenomenon that is feared, avoided and respected.

Visually, a tornado appears as a funnel of condensation air mass, generally dark as a result of the earth and other debris and material vacuumed up by its force. They can vary in size and appearance from a thin spinning cloud to an entity as wide as two miles across (more than 10,000 ft).

A tornado can generate winds up to 300 mph and remain in contact with the ground for dozens of miles. Weather conditions normally associated with tornadoes include wind, rain, hail, thunder, lightning, and low air pressure. Interestingly, a tornado spins counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

To measure the intensity and subsequent danger of a tornado to human life, an algorithm called the Enhanced Fujita Scale was created in 1971 by Ted Fujita (1920-1998), a prominent severe storms researcher and professor of meteorology. The scale extends from EF0 (least dangerous) to EF5 (most severe) and primarily reflect the amount of damage that can be expected and/or measured by a tornado. The EFS was officially adopted and unveiled by the National Weather Service on February 2, 2006.

Typically, tornado activity begins in Spring (April) and concludes in Summer. May and June represent peak tornado activity, however, the deadliest month is April. Since 1950, April witnesses an average of 27 tornadoes each year. Tornadoes have been known to occur on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, with the highest occurrences being observed in the southeastern United States.

How a Tornado is Formed
Massive thunderstorms typically called ‘supercells’ create the necessary conditions for a tornado to form. Tornadoes are created as a result of warm, moist air along the ground rushes upward, mixing with cooler and drier air. As the rising warm and moist air cools, the moisture content condenses and forms a giant thundercloud.

The most important aspect of a tornado is to seek shelter and safety immediately. Typically the safest place to be is in a basement or secure and designated public shelter. It is also important to avoid proximity to windows or any other area where loose debris can come in contact and cause injury.

This year (2011) represents the most dangerous tornado season on record in the United States and it is still only in its infancy.

The most recent tornadoes that have devastated the southern U.S. including Alabama and Oklahoma, have already claimed more than 200 lives.

Watch an up close and personal encounter of a tornado in Alabama:

Image credit: Encyclopedia Brittanica

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