What is a Tornado and What do the Different Warnings Mean?

With tornado season coming to a close in 2020, the team here at TrekrTech thought it was the perfect time for a quick reminder of just what a tornado is and how to react and prepare when under each of the different warnings. As a reminder, all of our walkies have the NOAA All Weather Alerts system built-in, so if you are looking for a backup to your cell phone for weather alerting, check our collection of walkie talkies.

What is a Tornado

Tornados are funnels of spinning air with winds that can top 250 miles an hour and the power to clear a pathway a mile wide and up to 50 miles long.

Also called twisters, tornadoes come from thunderstorms and often accompanied by hail. Large storms called supercells create the biggest and most devastating tornadoes.

These damaging storms occur everywhere globally, but the United States hotspot with nearly one thousand tornados per year. "Tornado Alley" is a region that spans the area from the eastern side of Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas, eastern Colorado, and northern parts of Texas. This area receives the majority of destructive storms. Tornados in the United States cause 1,500 injuries per year and 80 fatalities.

What causes tornadoes?

The most catastrophic tornados form from supercells, a massive thunderstorm that has rotating winds. Out of every thousand storms, one will typically grow into a supercell, around one in five of those supercells will spawn a tornado. Tornados can occur year-round but are most common in a specific season in early spring for states along the Gulf of Mexico. The jet stream dictates the season—as it travels farther north, so do the tornados. The month of May has more storms than other months. April can produce some of the most violent twisters, however. In the northern states, tornadoes are more common in late summer.

Tornados can occur at any time, but they are most common in the early afternoon. In the afternoons, the sun has had time to heat the ground and the atmosphere enough to produce a thunderstorm. When the warm, humid air runs into the cold, dry air, a tornado begins to form. When the dense cold air pushes over the warm air, typically a thunderstorm happens, then that warm air rises through the colder air causing an updraft. That updraft rotates if winds vary in speed or direction. As that rotating updraft or mesocycle draws warm air from the thunderstorm, the rate of the rotation increases, cold air that is fed by the jet stream provides more energy. The mesocyclone's moist air forms a funnel cloud with its water droplets, that funnel continues to grow and eventually descends from the cloud. Upon touchdown, with the ground, it officially becomes a tornado.

Tornado Watch vs. Tornado Warning vs. Tornado Emergency

Tornado watches, tornado warnings, and tornado emergencies all have different meanings, and depending on which warnings are being used; you should act differently.

Tornado Watch

Typically a tornado watch is issued hours in advance by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Issuance of a tornado watch in your area means that conditions are prime for a tornado to happen. Not all watches result in severe weather.

"A watch is issued when conditions are favorable, for example, either for a severe thunderstorm or tornadoes," AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said. "It doesn't mean severe weather is imminent."

When your area is subject to a tornado watch, keep an eye on weather alerts, and prepare yourself to act. Be sure you're aware of what to do if a tornado does hit and go over that plan with any children or family members who may need assistance in the event of a tornado occurring.

Tornado Warning

Tornado watches cover a broad geographical area, while local National Weather Service meteorologists issue warnings for a smaller area. Warnings mean that a tornado has visual confirmation, or that one has been picked up by radar.

If you find yourself in an area with a tornado warning, immediately get to your designated safe space, such as a basement or storm shelter. If neither of those is an option, you will want to go to the middle of a building, being sure to keep away from windows, ideally in an area with reinforced walls. 

Tornado Emergency 

In rare instances, during a severe tornado outbreak near a densely populated area, NOAA may issue a tornado emergency. The main difference in warnings and an emergency are determined by how widespread the damage and effected area will potentially be.

Like a tornado warning, if you are in the path of a tornado emergency, immediately seek shelter and wait for the all-clear from authorities before leaving your shelter.

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