The biggest tornado ever recorded

The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 got a lot of attention because it tore through residential areas, doing a huge amount of property damage and killing 24 people. It was an EF5, the strongest they come. Only 11 days later, a second EF5 tornado hit in the same vicinity, but this one didn’t get nearly so much press because, while it did a lot of local damage to El Reno — and killed three veteran storm chasers — it mostly chewed up fields and rural zones.

But now the US National Weather Service has had time to study their data, and it turns out that the second tornado was a whopping 2.6 miles wide (4.2 kilometers), making it the largest tornado ever recorded. With winds reaching 295 mph (475 kph), it barely missed making an additional record for the strongest winds ever recorded on Earth. (That record, ironically, belongs to another EF5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma in 1999. Its winds reached 302 mph.) With a track over 16 miles long (25.7 kilometers), this tornado had plenty of time to cause hell on earth had it touched down in a high-density area rather than a field. According to the Associated Press:

William Hooke, a senior policy fellow of the American Meteorological Society, said the continued growth of cities in tornado-prone areas makes it only a matter of time before another monstrous twister hits a heavily populated area.

“You dodged a bullet,” Hooke said. “You lay that path over Oklahoma City, and you have devastation of biblical proportions.”

Tempest Tours, a for-profit storm chasing outfit, got some eye-popping footage of the birth of the May 31 tornado. The first minute of the video is high-speed, as the vans chase the storm and get set up, but after 1:00 it reverts to normal speed and becomes frankly terrifying. The clients are out in the road, taking photos and oblivious to their danger as multiple vortices begin to form. The tour operators have to lay on their horn repeatedly before the last two clients start running back. Amazingly, one of them runs across the road from the van for more photos even as one of the vortices are moving toward them. It takes more honking and banging on the window to bring him in.

There are several minutes of footage taken from the van as it first runs to a safer distance, and then parallels the rapidly growing tornado. At the 8:40 mark, the camera is again still. Clients are outside the van, snapping photos and asking questions, and at 10:04 one asks if a funnel is “going to touch down again.” This, while they are all staring at the largest tornado in recorded history.

It’s not a stupid question, though. We tend to think of tornadoes as always having a recognizable, tapering funnel, as this one did in the beginning. But when they grow into massive EF4s or EF5s — especially one 2.6 miles across! — the funnel is so vast that it looks like a storm mass hovering right down to the ground. People not familiar with the realities of tornadoes may drive straight into one without having a clue of the risk. Watch this video at the 9:30 mark and ask yourself if you would have recognized that for what it was.

While reviewing videos of the May 31 tornado, I ran across this one of the May 20 tornado — the one that devastated Moore. (The owners won’t allow embedding, but it is riveting footage.) It’s quite a different flavor than the one above, with professional storm chasers reporting live to a news station as they track the tornado, and the news report going on in the background.

The storm chasers capture the birth of the tornado, and it’s very impressive to watch it touch down, dissipate, touch down again, and then swiftly grow into a monster. But for me, the moment that made me rub my eyes and look again comes at 6:50, when one of the storm chasers shouts, “Oh, those are cars! Oh my gosh, those are cars!” You won’t see it unless you’re watching in high definition and full screen, but two cars are swept from left to right around the column of the tornado, high in the air. Both crash into the ground on the right side of the tornado.

It was hard for me as a movie-going person to get past the fact that this was not CGI. This was real life, and anyone in those cars died on impact. When the weather forecaster on the news channel said, “If you are not underground, on the path of this storm, you are endangering your life,” he was telling the gospel truth.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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12 Responses to The biggest tornado ever recorded

  1. Jorge says:

    Mother Nature isn’t all that motherly sometimes.

  2. Inge says:

    Can i ask what motivation people way back had to build villages here? Is there oil, gold,.. that the Europeans went there? Or is it a more recent behaviour and then again.. why build something here?

    • oregon expat says:

      Originally, it was simply westward expansion from the earlier states, and there was land to be had for farming and ranching. In the early days, people settled in all sorts of truly inhospitable places because a) they didn’t realize just how inhospitable they were, and b) they would do almost anything to actually own property. But in the later years…it was oil. Oklahoma was already experiencing a huge oil boom before it even became a state.

      • Inge says:

        Thank you. I always believed the settlers picked prime estate, but i see now i was wrong.

      • Nerea Cooper says:

        Also, this is where the “Trail of Tears”,which is part of the Cherokee nation, and the resettlement of the Five Civilized Indian Tribes ended up. Before 1889 Oklahoma was settled by Indian and mostly outlaws.

        • Inge says:

          So the Cherokee actually knew about the conditions and still agreed to the settlement or am i completely misunderstanding what you’ve written? (I mean, i read this as: it was part of Cherokee nation and other tribes were also relocated to here)

          • oregon expat says:

            The Indian Tribes didn’t agree to settlement, they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands as the European settlers and their descendants spread south and west. The march from their homes to eastern Oklahoma was a death march, with tens of thousands dying along the way (hence the name “Trail of Tears“). This was a story told over and over again — push the Indians someplace where the land has no value…suddenly discover value in their new lands (oil in Oklahoma, gold in the Black Hills, etc.), and then push them out again.

          • Inge says:

            Ah thanks Fletcher.
            Does this also implies that the Tribe remained in the relocation-site? I mean after a century or so, they may have had the opportunity to relocate to a better place? … Reading it again and knowing mankind.. probably not. *sigh*

          • oregon expat says:

            I’d have to research it to see if there are exceptions, but my instinctive answer is that when tribes relocated, it was always to a worse place, not a better one.

          • Inge says:

            What a shame!

  3. redhorse says:

    I live about an hours drive from where this happened. Tornados are somewhat like the lottery, you never know when they are going to hit or where. What makes us not to concerned about being hit by a tornado is that we have a storm shelter and very good insurance. Unfortunately most in the state do not. I am normally not in favor of increasing government regulation, but in this case building codes should be updated to include storm shelters at every residence. That combined with good insurance plans would significantly lower the death/injury toll and make rebuilding easier. In the El Reno tornado, several of the deaths were due to drowning as people took shelter in storm drains that quickly flooded..

    • Starlight78954 says:

      Ya, I’m lipophobic (meaning I’m terrified of tornadoes/ thunderstorms) but, horribly unfortunate for me I live in Texas! So we have to run to our bathrooms and hope for the best, cause we can’t have storm shelters they would flood and we would either die in the twister or in the flood, so I hope I get over my fear soon but, trust me when I say this, I’ll NEVER go to Oklahoma or Kansaus or any other state that is apart of tornado alley (except, of corse Texas, I sadly have no choice there!) BTW does any one have an idea how I could get rid of my phobia or at least make is less terrifying? And if you want more info on twisters go and watch Tornado Alley on the weather Chanel or some other Chanel like that. Thanks for reading this! (If u took the time, LOL)

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