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.