As a teenager, I remember riding in a bus full of teenagers on a cross-country “See the U.S.A.” trip, when suddenly there were gasps and small cries of alarm from my fellow riders. Everyone pointed and looked to the north as we saw a massive tornado moving across the plains of Kansas.
I remember thinking that this was a real-life version of The Wizard of Oz, as the funnel cloud looked exactly like those we’d seen in movies. Fortunately, this one was miles and miles away. The flat, wide-open space made it look much closer than it was – but awesomely scary at the same time.
But not all tornadoes are created the same. How they form, the shapes they take, and their size correlate with their potential for destruction.
Here are some tornado types, both large and small, and how to tell them apart.
Wedge tornadoes are the biggest and most destructive of all twisters. They are easy to distinguish from other tornadoes since they look as wide as they are tall. As they approach, they appear more as a wall of powerful destruction.
Wedge tornadoes are produced by supercell thunderstorms, but their shape is almost always an indication of being on the higher end of the enhanced Fujita scale at -3 to -5.
The widest wedge tornado on record in the U.S. hit near El Reno, Oklahoma in 2013. It was 2.6 miles wide with winds close to 300 mph. It stayed on the ground for 40 minutes and destroyed everything in its path as it traveled 16.2 miles.
Supercell storms create several other tornado types, distinguished by their shape and makeup.
This is the typical tornado type you see in movies. They are broader at the base (near the clouds) and narrower as the funnel reaches the ground.
Similar to cone tornadoes, stovepipes keep a tall and narrow cloud base that doesn’t vary much in size between the base and the ground.
Less common, rain-wrapped tornadoes are particularly dangerous because they hide behind a curtain of intense rainfall. In many cases, the only indication a tornado exists is because radar has detected it. If you are driving in a storm, you won’t know it is there until you are in it.
These types of tornadoes tend to cause small areas of extreme damage. They feature two or more vortices rotating around a larger, central tornado. They are harder to see as each funnel picks up debris and obscures the vortices. Wedge tornadoes have been known to develop from multi-vortex tornadoes.
A rope tornado is a tornado at the end of its cycle. They appear long and narrow, like a rope, and lull you into thinking the storm is about to end. This is misleading because one rope could disappear while another develops.
Sometimes called landspouts when over dry land, or waterspouts when over water, the weather doesn’t have to be terrible for them to form.
These types of tornadoes are not terribly dangerous, are skinnier and often rope-like, and don’t last as long as their wedge tornado cousins. As a result, they don’t do nearly the same amount of damage but can cause injury if you get caught up in one.
Gustnadoes (yes, that’s a real word) are small “spin-ups” that pop up in front of a storm system. They are not technically tornadoes, but they spin around a vortex the same way, so they look similar.
A gustnado occurred in Richmond, Virginia during the Folk Festival a few years ago and upended a food truck while giving some attendees small cuts from flying debris. It came and went in the blink of an eye, but isn’t much fun if you get in the middle of one.
Similar to gustnadoes are Dust Devils (think Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes). You see them often on baseball fields or parking lots and are much more common than you’d think. They form in perfectly sunny skies and happen when changes in heat cause air movement.
Fire Whirls are a similar type of tornado. Super-heated air from fires starts to spin and rotate the flames inside a vortex. During the Carr Fire in 2018 in Northern California, one fire whirl turned into an EF-3 tornado and graduated into what is termed a fire tornado. According to meteorologist Brandon Miller with CNN, “That had never really been seen to that scale before.”
Tornadoes can occur in any thunderstorm and are incredibly difficult to predict. You never know what type of tornado will occur, and the size of the storm is no indication of the danger. Never underestimate the power and severity of these storms and take shelter, whether it’s a wedge tornado or a Tasmanian Devil. Follow the instructions provided by the National Weather Service and use common-sense caution to prevent injury and loss.
Sources: CNN, Our Global Climate, National Weather Service