can tornadoes pick up cars

Are you in a tornado-prone area and wondering can tornadoes pick up cars?

Since this is a lingering question on many people’s minds the world over you are not alone.

Tornadoes can also damage or destroy motor vehicles and other vehicles.

As a vehicle’s surface area is exposed to the winds, the vehicle will be more easily blown from the road. Vans, buses, and large passenger cars are particularly vulnerable to being blown away by tornadoes.

Strong winds can pick up a car or truck and hurl it through the air into buildings.

Understanding Tornadoes

Tornadoes are weather phenomena that form from severe thunderstorms.

They are characterized by a violently rotating column of air that extends from the storm’s base to the ground.

The most severe tornadoes have winds of up to 300 miles per hour and can destroy large buildings, uproot trees, hurl vehicles long distances and drive straw into trees.

A tornado’s damage path can be as wide as one mile or as long as 50 miles. On average, 800 tornadoes hit the United States each year.

Fact: The winds of tornadoes have been known to overturn and roll vehicles in the United State's Tornado Valley.

Even slightly weaker tornadoes can lift cars completely off the ground and hurl them long distances.

Shape and Strength of Tornadoes

strength of tornado

Tornadoes can take many shapes, including funnel clouds, rope-like strands of cloud, and rotating masses of air with a smoky appearance.

Some have multiple vortices—small tornadoes rotating around a central mass—visible at ground level as swirling dust or debris.

Others may be nearly invisible, only discernable through the visual cues of swirling dust or debris at ground level.

In Pampa, Texas, the strongest recorded tornado picked up a piece of heavy machinery weighing more than 30,000 pounds. We do not know whether this happened by pushing or lifting.

Note: Tornadoes can certainly lift vans weighing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds into the air.

Fujita Scale and Tornado Strength

The strength of a tornado is based on the power it generates. The lower the number, the less destructive the tornado.

A light tornado can stir up dust and knock over some small trees but shouldn’t affect your car.

If a tornado begins to stir up stronger winds, you should move away from your car, as it could get pushed aside.

Fujita Scale is used to measure tornado strength: Here are tornado strength categories on the Fujita Scale:

  • F0: 40-72 miles per hour winds
  • F1: 73-112 miles per hour winds
  • F2: 113-157 miles per hour winds
  • F3: 158-206 miles per hour winds
  • F4: 207-260 miles per hour winds
  • F5: 260-318 miles per hour winds

Once you get to an F2 strength (or stronger), the twister will begin to pick up objects like cars and houses and toss them around in the air.

This is possible because most cars have a great deal of surface area—pair that with upward currents near the center of a tornado, and you’ve got all the necessary ingredients for lift-off.

Factors Affecting Strength of Tornadoes

factors tornado

Tornadoes vary in strength, which is also dependent on numerous factors.

It should be noted that whether there is a possibility of a tornado picking up cars is entirely dependent on the tornado’s strength.

Here are some factors affecting tornado strength:

Tornado Size and Reach

Most tornadoes have a funnel that narrows sharply, but the wind currents inside them can cause tornadoes to spread out.

However, it’s been noted that tornadoes tend to fizzle out quickly if they get too big, meaning that massive tornadoes don’t have the strength to pick up cars compared to smaller ones.

Temperature and Tornado Strength

In 2007, the U.S. National Weather Service adopted an updated scale called the Enhanced Fujita Scale to measure tornado sizes and decided to stop using the old F-scale.

As temperatures rise, tornadoes’ funnels grow significantly wider—for example, a 90°C tornado maybe twice as wide as a 60°C tornado and can keep growing from there.

Fact: Because the Fujita scale is a subjective rather than objective measurement tool.

Scientists must compare each tornado they find to other tornadoes they have rated more highly on the Fujita scale and use that information to classify tornadoes.

Duration of Tornado

duration of tornado

Tornadoes are typically weak and last only a few minutes, though they can last up to twenty-five minutes at their strongest.

The longer a tornado stays in one place and the more damage it causes, the further its path tends to span.

A rare exception is a violent tornado that can stay in one place for several hours and causes extensive destruction over a very large area.

Topography of the Tornado Path

Surroundings such as mountains, hills, and valleys can affect the intensity and direction of tornadoes by altering the speed, strength, and direction of air currents near the surface of the earth.

Surroundings can also alter the inflow into a tornado, which also determines whether they can pick up cars.

Digital Surface Elevation Model

A Digital Surface Elevation Model (DEM) is a three-dimensional depiction of the earth’s surface built from satellite data, showing terrain’s impact on tornado formation and movement.

Severe changes in weather can be seen due to features such as wind shear, which is strengthened by local topographical features like hilly or rugged terrain.

Fact: Damage surveys conducted in the wake of tornado activity support these findings and lead scientists to conclude that tornadoes generally are stronger on flat and non-mountainous terrain.

Wind Speed

The wind is an important parameter to consider if you’re wondering can tornadoes pick up cars. To measure the speed of the wind, scientists might use two methods.

One is called photogrammetry, which uses numerous photographs taken at different angles to calculate the speed of the wind.

The other method is the Doppler effect —the change in frequency that a wave will experience when motion occurs between the source and listener.

Scientists can use these two methods together to determine the maximum wind speed of a tornado: one mile per second (1.6 kilometres per second).

Note: It follows that stronger winds create stronger tornadoes that pick up cars.

Car Safety Tips From a Tornado

car safety tips from tornado

People often think of tornadoes as columns of high wind. They do not consider the erratic nature of tornadoes, which may quickly change direction.

Tornadoes also carry debris that can pierce a vehicle, and this aspect makes it a very dangerous storm.

When a tornado approaches, get to a sturdy building as quickly as possible if you are on the road.

Pull into a gas station or shopping center and go into the bathroom or the inside hallway of the building. Find a basement or interior room and seek shelter there.

If you can’t find a shelter, follow these steps:

1. Get off the Road as Soon as Possible

There are two main reasons for this. First, you can become a target for debris and other road hazards if your car is present on the road.

Second, you may be unaware of tornado-related dangers that threaten your safety based on where you have pulled over to the side.

2. Stay Away from Tunnels and Bridges

avoid tunnels bridge

If a tornado is approaching, don’t head for areas under bridges or tunnels.

Their walls channel high winds, putting those seeking shelter there at greater risk than those in the open.

3. Stay Low

If you’re driving along a highway or backroad and see a tornado, pull to the side of the road, strap your seatbelts, and duck beneath the windows.

This should keep you safe from the tornado as it passes by.

Read Next: Does Arizona Get Tornadoes?

Final Thought

If you’re wondering, can tornadoes pick up cars, the answer is YES. Because strong winds can easily overturn a moving car, it is not safe to attempt to outrun a tornado in your car.

If you see one developing, pull over and get out of your vehicle.

Take shelter in the nearest sturdy building or storm shelter. Never hide beneath your car.

If there is no available shelter, find the next best place—a ditch or low-lying area—and crouch low to the ground with your head covered by your arms.