how far do tornadoes travel

Have you ever wondered how far do tornadoes travel? In this article, you’ll learn about tornadoes, including how far they travel and what makes them travel such distances.

Tornadoes are funnel-shaped whirlwinds that extend from thunderstorms and touch the ground.

Tornado paths are usually only a few hundred feet wide but can be up to two miles (3.2 kilometers) across in some cases. Strong tornadoes can travel up to 15 miles before dissipating, but most tornadoes last less than ten minutes and travel a few miles. The furthest recorded distance traveled by a tornado was 219 miles in 1926 in Missouri.

What Causes a Tornado

causes of tornado

A tornado often forms from a large thunderstorm because it produces thunder and lightning bolts.

A thunderstorm is created when warm and humid air rises into the atmosphere inside a cloud of multiple layers of cool, falling air.

Some areas of the rising, warm air carry more water and other matter than others and may bump into other masses of air on their way upwards, causing rotations within the cloud–in essence, the beginnings of tornadoes.

Temperature Inversion

A phenomenon is known as temperature inversion often accompanies strong tornadoes.

An inversion is an atmospheric condition that occurs when a layer of cool, dry air is present at middle levels of the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere), while a layer of moist air near the surface of the Earth remains conditional and unstable.

Because they are so small relative to their surroundings, tornadoes hold only a tiny fraction of the energy of the thunderstorms from which they develop.

Their danger stems from the highly concentrated nature of this energy.

Factors affecting Distance Travelled By a Tornado

A lot of factors come into play to influence tornadoes formation and how many miles do tornadoes travel.

Here are some factors:

  • Duration of the Tornado
  • Topography of where the tornado forms
  • Wind Speed
  • Size
  • Humidity
  • Atmospheric instability lift
  • Vertical Wind Shear

To determine the strength of tornadoes, meteorologists look at how wide the twisters are.

Because tornado size is related to other conditions they develop, tornadoes travel through storm systems that display supercell characteristics.

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Note: A tornado’s intensity eventually wanes after going for an extended period, weakening it.

Duration of the Tornado

duration of tornado

The average tornado, typically lasting only two to three minutes, is weak.

On the other hand, strong tornadoes can last up to twenty-five minutes, while violent events can last three hours or more.

At the same time, an exceptional case, violent events lasting longer than three hours, has been recorded.

The longer a tornado keeps going, the further it travels and the more destruction it causes in any direction.

Supercell Tornadoes

Long-lived tornadoes tend to spawn from supercell thunderstorms, while tornadoes spawned by squall lines and bow echoes are typically short-lived.

They also travel the furthest and often cause the most damage. Supercell tornadoes are a rare occurrence compared to short-lived tornadoes.

The direction a supercell tornado moves depends on various factors, including the strength and size of the wind.

In most cases, tornadoes move from southwest to northeast or from west to east.

Fact: Some supercell tornadoes have changed direction during their destruction or even backtracked

Topography of Where the Tornado forms

topography of tornado

Topography, such as mountain ranges and valleys, can influence the direction and intensity of tornadoes by altering the speed, strength, and direction of airflow near the surface.

Topography can also alter the near-surface inflow into a tornado.

Some numerical modeling studies have shown that tornadoes can strengthen, weaken, or change direction depending on their position relative to a particular terrain.

Tornadoes and Flat Terrain

Digital surface elevation models show the impact that terrain has on tornado formation and movement and the strength of tornadoes.

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.

On the other hand, damage surveys conducted in the wake of tornado activity have supported these findings and led scientists to conclude that tornadoes generally travel longer distances on flat and non-mountainous terrain.

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Wind Speed

speed of wind

Wind speed is one of the most critical determinants of how far do tornadoes usually travel.

Generally, higher wind speeds sustained over a long period mean the tornado will travel long distances while still retaining its strength.

Tornadoes have been observed with wind speeds of 250 miles per hour and more, though tornadoes with such high winds are rare.

Tornadoes produce damage (paths) more than a mile (1.6 km) wide and more than 50 miles (80 km) wide.

Measuring wind Speed

Photogrammetry (measuring from photographs) and the Doppler effect —the apparent change in frequency of a wave caused by motion between the source and listener—can be used to measure wind speeds.

Tornadoes have been known to generate winds that blow faster than any other hurricane, but their effects are confined to a tiny region.

Note: Tornadoes occur in the United States more often than anywhere else globally, most frequently in the spring and summer months when it’s windy in the Rocky Mountains.

Size

Most tornadoes have relatively narrow funnels that taper sharply, but the wind currents flowing through them can cause tornadoes to grow in breadth.

However, it’s been noted that the more a tornado grows, the more it loses its strength, and therefore it’s likely to die down quickly.

This means that more immense tornadoes generally don’t travel further than the narrow funneled tornadoes.

In 2007, the U.S. National Weather Service adopted the Enhanced Fujita scale to measure tornado sizes and declared that it would no longer use the F-scale.

Temperature and Tornado Size

As the temperature goes up, the tornado’s funnel diameter increases substantially.

For example, when the temperature rises from 60 degrees Celsius to 90 degrees Celsius, the tornado’s width may double, and it can continue to grow significantly.

Fact: After scientists have surveyed the damage, they estimate the intensity and size of the tornado by comparing it to other tornadoes that have been rated more highly and use that information to classify tornadoes on the Fujita Scale.

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Humidity

humidity factor

If the air is sufficiently warm, humid air will rise at a specific rate, causing condensation and the formation of clouds.

Thunderstorms can result from this process. Higher humidity often results in stronger storms hence stronger tornadoes.

At the center of a tornado is an area is known as the “eye.” Inside this eye, the air is forced to rise rapidly, under low pressure, that pulls at ground level, thus creating a cyclone.

Relative Humidity and Tornadoes

Dew point and temperature, both essential climate variables, are nearby when the dew point nearly equals the actual temperature near the ground.

Under such circumstances, the relative humidity is close to 100%. The higher the relative humidity, the further the hurricane is likely to travel, and vice versa is true.

In many tornadoes, the narrow cone of intense winds, reaching peak speeds of about 300 mph and called the tornado vortex, is located where the air is descending in a downdraft caused by rain or hail falling through the storm.

Atmospheric Instability Lift

In an unstable atmosphere, air can become thick enough to condense into clouds only when air parcels begin rising due to upward motion caused by the force of atmospheric lift.

When determining how far do tornadoes travel,atmospheric instability lift is crucial as it enables the thunderstorm formation process necessary to form a tornado.

An increased atmospheric instability lift generally creates stronger tornadoes known to cause more destruction and travel over longer distances, sometimes across states.

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Final Thought

Tornadoes are most frequent and most severe in the Midwest and Great Plains of the United States because these areas are located where conditions favorable to tornadoes occur during the springtime.

Such conditions often determine how far do tornadoes travel.

Meteorologists hypothesize that tornadoes have gotten stronger in recent years because of climate change.

The warmer and wetter atmosphere has increased the density of moisture, hail, snow, and dust within a thunderstorm system.

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