The United States is home to an astounding range of climates and ecosystems, from the frozen tundra of northern Alaska to the sun-baked desert of southern Arizona. While we can’t cover every type of severe weather in this space, there are a few common types that are important to understand.
The more you know about these three types, the better your can prepare your family and property for surviving a storm in safety. If severe weather is approaching your area now, seek shelter and listen to your radio for emergency instructions from local officials.
A tornado is nature’s most violent form of severe weather. With an average wind speed of 112 mph, they can produce winds up to 300 mph – capable of destroying all but the strongest structures.
Tornadoes appear most often during spring when weather patterns are shifting. However, they’ve been reported during every month of the year – even in the middle of winter. Some 800 to 1,000 tornadoes appear in the U.S. every year, causing millions of dollars in damage and many deaths.
“Tornado Alley,” which runs from Texas north through east Nebraska and northeast to Indiana, is the most common site for twisters. However, they can be found in all 50 states.
Tornadoes usually originate from thunderstorms that develop when warm, damp air is suddenly lifted by a cold front or afternoon heating. As this air mass rises, it cools. Its moisture condenses into rain or freezes into hail. Shifting air currents within this new storm form areas of rotating winds that can build up tremendous speed and touch the ground as tornadoes.
While they can form at any time of day or night, about 80% of all tornadoes occur between noon and midnight.
Contrary to what you see in movies, tornadoes do not “suck” houses, cows, witches on bicycles, or people up into the funnel. On the other hand, their strong winds can lift and move large objects such as a car hundreds of feet. One tornado can devastate an entire town in less than 5 minutes.
Hurricanes don’t blow as hard as tornadoes, but they can often cause far more damage because of their sheer size – sometimes hundreds of miles across. In fact, the total energy contained in a single major hurricane can be equal to that of several dozen nuclear bombs. What’s more, one hurricane can spin off many tornadoes if conditions are right.
Most hurricanes that strike our country originate in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of West Africa. They gather strength and speed as they move westward across the ocean, then northward through the Caribbean Sea toward the United States. Florida, Texas, the Gulf Coast and the Carolinas are all familiar with the devastation hurricanes can bring. Many other states up the Eastern seaboard have also been hit hard over the years, with most of the damage coming within 20 miles of the coast.
“Hurricane season” usually begins in late spring and continues until early November when the Atlantic waters finally cool off for the winter. Thanks to advances in satellite technology and weather forecasting, most hurricanes are tracked far in advance, giving coastal residents plenty of time to prepare and evacuate when necessary. Weather officials usually expect anywhere from 5 to 25 “named hurricanes” per year, with many more tropical storms as well.
Storm surge is one of the most dangerous aspects of any major hurricane. Tides can rise suddenly, crashing billions of gallons of water into unprotected areas. The devastation you see on television after a major hurricane is usually caused by both wind and water. It’s this deadly combination that some people forget when they try to “ride out” the storm.
Thunderstorms aren’t as deadly as tornadoes, but they occur far more often and can cause tremendous damage. A large thunderhead cloud is capable of discharging billions of volts of electrical energy – enough to start a major fire, knock out a communications system or bring down an airplane. The electronic appliances we depend on today are often the most vulnerable to electrical storms.
Most thunderstorms last for less than an hour, and they typically occur during spring and summer when conditions are right. Upper atmosphere collisions between low-pressure and high-pressure fronts can produce a long line of thunderstorms stretching for dozens – even hundreds – of miles.
While thunderstorms may be entertaining to watch, they carry a deadly threat that should never be ignored. Every year, dozens of Americans are killed or seriously injured by lightning strikes. Tragically, most of these deaths could have been avoided.