What happens if you get sucked into a tornado?
How many of you have ever watched a tornado on TV or in a movie and wondered “What would happen if you were caught in a tornado?”
Tornadoes can be extremely powerful and cause serious destruction. With winds going above 250mph, you can only imagine what it can do if you get sucked into it.
While we truly hope you never find yourself in this situation, it is still important to know what can go wrong if it ever happens.
It can be extremely dangerous to get sucked into a tornado and you may sustain physical and emotional injury along with long-term breathing problems.
Brief Overview of the Danger Posed by Tornadoes
Tornadic winds have been recorded at 250 mph.
Fast enough to rip the roofs off buildings, overturn vehicles and de-rail trains but everything about tornadoes screams danger.
These dark violent twisters force people to seek immediate shelter in specially designed cellars.
They happen all over the planet and are at their most dangerous when the funnel touches the ground.
Tornadoes have the power to cause absolute destruction, leveling towns in a few terrifying minutes.
The most violent tornadoes form in supercell thunderstorms with rapidly rotating winds.
Such storms can spawn several miles and although they are typically short-lived, some last about an hour.
How and When Can You Get Sucked into a Tornado?
Because tornadoes can happen almost anywhere and because of climate change, they seem to be getting stronger, it’s natural for people in tornado rich areas to worry about being sucked into one.
It’s rare but it has happened – only the person wasn’t sucked in or up, they were lifted by a strong horizontal wind at the base of the funnel.
This is created as the rotating wind meets the ground and is deflected upwards away from the surface and back up into the sides of the funnel.
This takes anything loose on the ground, including people, cars, cows and the dirt itself.
An Important Consideration
The exact location for a tornado touchdown is almost impossible to predict so potentially anyone could be lifted into a tornado.
Thankfully, tornado spawning storms are easier to predict so warnings of the likelihood of tornadoes can be given with enough time to take cover.
How Strong a Tornado Should Be to Suck You Into It?
People feeling concerned about being sucked into a tornado isn’t surprising. To the observer, the funnel does appear to be sucking debris in.
In reality, the debris is lifted as the wind pushes its way over around and under it.
Although the stronger winds of a full tornado can lift a heavier object and move it, it does not mean it can hang onto it once it is suspended.
The wind may be strong enough to lift it, flip it or shift it but not strong enough to support its weight, especially higher up.
The shape of the object has relevance too. Broad based objects are harder to lift than objects with small or irregular bases.
An Important Consideration
If we use the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale as a guide, an F3 could blow the feet out from under a human and make it difficult to stand, but an F4 could lift a person into the air.
Can You Survive Inside a Tornado?
Few have ever been lifted into a tornado and survived. The force of the wind is just so enormous and the human body so fragile.
A skydiver had the misfortune to get trapped in a spinning cold air vortex and although frozen and unconscious when found miles away, she lived to tell the tale.
Although a person lifted by a tornado will get to experience similar rotating winds with the pressure and the debris a tornado gathers, they would be unlikely to survive.
Statistically, most loss of life during a tornado is due to flying debris, flooding or collapsing buildings.
Fact: The magnitude of a tornado can range widely with their widths ranging from just a hundred feet to well over two miles.
What Happens If You Get Sucked Into a Tornado?
People have been swept across distances by tornados and others picked up into the funnel and carried for a short while.
Very few have been lifted into the vortex proper. Survivors reported a sudden drop in pressure, droning or humming, sulfur smells, and whatever the tornado last digested.
Some sort of physical trauma is a certainty, mostly likely a blunt force injury as the wind buffers the body and debris bombards it with enough force to shatter bones and destroy internal organs.
It was the lack of debris in the cold air vortex that saved the skydiver.
Just as she was, the person in a tornado would be carried up high into the colder thinner air by the raging updraft.
Not only will the person succumb to the intense sudden cold and thin air, but when the current can no longer support them, they fatally drop back to earth.
Impact on the Respiratory System
Even without broken ribs and the presence of mind to keep breathing, catching your breath inside a tornado is difficult.
The air is less dense and thinner containing less oxygen like the air on mountain tops.
Like high mountains, tornados have a ‘death zone’ with very low oxygen levels.
A person will be gasping for air, and there is no doubt about that.
But, with every breath they will be breathing in minute particles of dust containing all kinds of matter and the potential to cause long term damage to the respiratory system.
There is speculation that the same dust causes breathing problems generally.
Therefore, you are surely going to witness some respiratory problems if you ever get sucked into a tornado.
Not surprisingly, there are psychological repercussions for those who survive being taken by a tornado.
Some relish the experience describing it as life changing, others find their near-death experience traumatic and recover physically only to be left with PTSD.
Whether lifted or not, surviving a tornado can trigger strong emotional reactions, flashbacks, anxiety and nightmares that interfere with relationships and day to day living.
After Texas was hammered by a series of tornadoes there was a corresponding increase in reported post-traumatic stress disorders.
Fact: About a fifth of the people who experience a tornado will suffer some kind of psychological trauma.
Importance of Preparedness and Safety Measures for a Tornado
With climate change we are told to expect more supercell storms.
Although scientists cannot be sure because computer modeling tornado behavior is difficult, they are confidently predicting more tornadoes with greater frequency of F3s and over, perhaps with an F6.
The advice for those in high frequency zones is to be prepared by knowing the warning system and what to do.
It is worth mentioning that because tornados are hard to predict, you have to learn how to spot one.
Some of the most common signs would be:
- The rotating funnel-shaped cloud
- Debris in the air
- A green sky
- Low dark cloud
- Large hail
- A roar like an approaching freight train
What to Do If You are Stuck in a Tornado
If you want to stay safe the best thing to do is avoid tornadoes but that approach is going to get harder and tornadoes are notoriously unpredictable and deceptive.
They change direction suddenly and can look as if they are standing still when they are moving toward you rapidly. People do get caught out in the open.
The advice is to get as low to the ground as possible preferably in a ditch and protect your head from flying debris.
Sadly, if you happen to find yourself lifted into a tornado, there’s little you can actually do to increase your likelihood of surviving.
Fact: The central United States is called "Tornado Alley," because the area witnesses the highest numbers of tornadoes compared to the rest of the country.
What happens if you get sucked into a tornado? Without a doubt, getting sucked into a tornado is never fun.
In fact, it can be a potentially lethal situation. The wind’s sheer intensity, the fluctuating air pressure, and the flying debris all pose serious risks to human life.
There are some known cases of survivorship, although they are far from typical.
In the event of a tornado warning, it is always preferable to take shelter as soon as possible and adhere to safety procedures.