Weather Events

Why do tornadoes stop spinning?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. While scientists have yet to determine the exact reason that a tornado may suddenly die down, significant research has been done on the subject. The most common theory to emerge regarding the death of a tornado relates to the mesocyclone (a small cyclone) that initially forms the storm. If the spinning motion of the mesocyclone is disrupted, the tornado loses the source of its airflow, eventually dying out. So something likely acts as a kind of speed bump to the tornado, throwing it out of sync long enough to take away its mojo.

    As deadly and fearsome as they are, there is nonetheless a fascination about what makes tornadoes tick. For example, before it encounters any speed bumps, what goes on in the "eye" of a tornado? Movie depictions notwithstanding, there have been only two known eyewitnesses to the inside of a tornado. In 1928, Will Keller of Greensburg, Kan., saw an umbrella-shaped cloud and felt a tornado might be on its way. He got his family into the storm cellar, but stayed outside a bit longer until the tornado settled directly over him. According to Keller, the inside of the tornado was very still and smelled like grass. Thanks to bursts of lightning within the funnel, he saw cloud walls and smaller tornadoes forming, and then breaking free. Roy Hall, a Texan soybean farmer, described much the same experience in 1951, when a tornado ripped the roof off his house and settled above it for a while before moving on.

    It's certainly not worth braving a storm to find the calm inside, however. A tornado can reach wind speeds of 300 mph (483 kph) and can throw cars around like Frisbees. The forward speed of a tornado can reach 70 mph (112 kph). Most of the destruction a tornado causes comes from the flying debris. So it's not recommended that you open the windows during a tornado. Fully 75 percent of all tornadoes are in the United States, which has on average 800 a year.

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