What If You're Trapped Inside a Tornado? | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Noah Baum
WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Tornadoes are some of the most dangerous natural disasters in the world. These massive, spiralling tunnels of wind, rain and debris cause widespread destruction. You definitely DO NOT want to be inside one... But, in this video, Unveiled discovers what actually happens INSIDE A TORNADO....
What if You’re Trapped Inside a Tornado?
Tornadoes occur frequently and globally, appearing in every continent except for Antarctica. They appear most frequently in the United States, where over 1,200 are reported annually, causing an average of 80 deaths each year; their commonality doesn’t make them any less fatal. But is it possible to survive in the eye of these storms?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if you’re trapped inside a tornado?
Forming mostly from cumulonimbus clouds (or thunderclouds), tornadoes are violent funnels of air that make contact with the ground. Three-quarters of all tornadoes in the world touch down in the United States, with the majority appearing in “Tornado Alley”, though this area has never been formally defined. Despite this, the deadliest tornado in world history didn’t happen in North America, but in Bangladesh. The 1989 Daulatpur-Saturia Tornado killed roughly 1,300 people. The deadliest American tornado was the 1925 Tri-State Tornado that tore through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, killing 695 people. The wind speeds of the most extreme tornadoes exceed 300 miles per hour. Compared to many natural disasters, tornadoes are wildly unpredictable, and many can form at once – sometimes for days on end. This is significantly less time than the weeks or months of activity that often precede volcanic eruptions, for instance, allowing time for evacuations. In tornado hotspots, people need to be prepared with a fully stocked storm shelter or basement capable of withstanding the winds because there often won’t be time to get away. Their movement can be incredibly erratic, making it difficult to predict their path.
If you were caught in a storm, and weren’t able to make it to a shelter, one of the best things you could do would be to lie down flat on the floor to try to avoid flying debris swirling around the tornado; it’s this debris that presents the most danger, and causes the most death and destruction. Lying down will also reduce the chances of you becoming part of this debris, because it makes it harder for the wind to lift you up. Not that this is foolproof; as said, there are still dozens of tornado deaths in the US each year, and sometimes the wind gets so strong it can break up and lift entire houses – and these houses, unfortunately, won’t land safely in Oz. The odds are that you’d end up becoming debris no matter what. If this didn’t kill you, you’d definitely be at risk of some grisly and permanent injuries.
A devastating tornado that struck Oklahoma in May 1999 caused numerous head and brain injuries. Injuries from a tornado in the same area in 2013 included broken bones, impalements, and “degloving” incidents, where the skin is peeled away from the tissue. In 2011, a tornado in Joplin, Missouri took the lives of 161 people, and left many more wounded; the most insidious injuries weren’t picked up until weeks later, when people began to come down with a rare fungal infection caused by flying wood splinters infecting their wounds. Winds may be calmer inside the centre of the tornado, but to get to that point you’ll have to contend with all these hazards – and if you don’t get tossed, you’ll have the same problems on the way back out.
But has anyone ever been lucky enough to see the inside of a tornado and live to tell the tale? In the US, there are two men who had this privilege, Will Keller and Roy Hall. Despite happening around 20 years apart, both of these accounts are very similar. Both Keller and Hall were farmers who sought refuge from tornadoes in Kansas and Texas respectively, sending their families to safety while they stayed to watch the twister approach. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely not do!) Inside the main funnel, the cloud walls are purportedly very smooth, the interior full of small, miniature-twisters that break off and dissipate. And if you’re wondering how they were both able to see all these details so clearly, it’s because the tornado was lit up by lightning produced by the same storm cloud, bathing everything in an unusual, bluish hue. They also reported struggling to breathe while they were inside, as well as a considerable drop in temperature. Both men and their families miraculously survived, and while Hall’s home had the roof torn off, Keller’s tornado missed his house completely, instead destroying his neighbours’ farm.
Keller and Hall were extremely lucky to witness a tornado so close-up and survive. There are plenty of real-life storm-chasers out there who dedicate their lives to tracking down and studying tornadoes. Though this sounds exciting, even the best storm-chasers can find themselves in danger. In 2013, veteran chaser Tim Samaras, together with his son and colleague, died during a chase; they were working on an experiment to develop better tornado-monitoring devices. Their vehicle was picked up and flipped by the strong winds. This most likely happened because Samaras and his team didn’t have the right equipment to receive live updates of the tornado on its path, instead having to rely on their eyes. Reed Timmer, who starred in “Storm Chasers”, has also found himself too close for comfort with the tornadoes he follows. In a 2009 tornado in Nebraska, the team’s specially modified SUV had the driver’s side window blown out by a tornado with winds speeds of 138 miles per hour.
When you’re actually in the tornado though, a few things happen. For a start, the air pressure is considerably lower, so much so that it’s actually lower than the pressure in what mountaineers call the “death zone”. The “death zone” occurs at altitudes higher than 26,000 feet, and is so named because it’s the point at which breathing apparatus is necessary. It also gets much colder, sometimes as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the temperature outside. The good news is that the tornado moves so fast that you probably wouldn’t be at risk of suffocation or freezing to death, unless you really were trapped inside it. If you were trapped inside without getting killed by debris, you may be at risk of suffocation inside the vortex. If that didn’t kill you, you’d eventually be dropped or thrown when the tornado moves on. It’s speculated that tornadoes are responsible for “raining animals” phenomena, with waterspouts – which are identical to tornadoes other than the fact they’re over water – picking up fish and frogs and dumping them far away. It even once rained spiders in Australia.
If you’re lucky enough not to get flung away by the wind or struck by flying debris, you would still have a high chance of suffocating in the “death zone” of the twister’s funnel. And that’s what would happen if you were trapped inside a tornado.