Moore, Oklahoma Tornado: Understanding the Wind and Storms

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NASA recorded this image of the Oklahoma superstorms from space. Image by NASA

Catastrophes can seem difficult to understand, but behind every hurricane and tornado, there is a science of wind that shapes the movement and intensity of the storm. The tornado that struck on Monday, May 20th killed at least 24 people and left thousands homeless in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

At its peak, the tornado was over a mile wide, and it moved across the land for over 16 miles before stopping. Winds inside the tornado reached 200 miles per hour. Rubble is all that is left in the areas that suffered a direct hit from the tornado.

Tornado Categories: What is an EF5?

The tornado that struck Moore was an EF5 tornado. Like hurricanes and earthquakes, tornadoes have a rating scale that helps people understand the damage potential and intensity of the disaster.

EF stands for Enhanced Fujita, the tornado rating system that takes into account damage levels and recorded wind speed. EF5 is the highest level of tornado, and it’s designated as “incredible” damage, with winds that can sweep houses from their foundations. In the United States, only one percent of tornadoes reach the EF5 level every year.

How Does an EF5 Tornado Form?

The most intense tornadoes begin like any other: cold air and warm, moist air meet. The moist air creates thunderclouds, and the warm air moves quickly upward, pulling up additional warm air and developing an updraft of wind. This updraft creates a spinning vortex with a low pressure center. As warm air rises, it moves over the top of the storm and then moves upward again. The low-pressure central area continues to get higher as it sucks more air upward, creating a tornado.

While every tornado begins a little differently, a number of factors come into play to form a particularly intense tornado. Essentially, there’s just enough of every ingredient: enough cold air, but not too much, and enough humidity, but not too much.

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