What's the difference between a tornado and a funnel cloud?

Published: Mar. 14, 2006 at 4:43 PM EST
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What's the difference between a tornado and a funnel cloud?

Funnel clouds are rotating columns of air not in contact with the ground. However, the violently rotating column of air may reach the ground very quickly, becoming a tornado. If there is debris being picked up or blown around by the "funnel cloud" then the rotating column of air has already reached the ground and it's a tornado.

How are tornadoes and waterspouts different?
Waterspouts are weak tornadoes that form over warm water. Waterspouts are most common along the Gulf Coast and southeastern US coastline. Waterspouts occasionally move inland, as soon as the base of the rotating column of air moves over land the waterspout becomes a tornado.

How strong are tornadoes?
While most tornadoes (69%) have winds of less than 100 miles an hour, they can be much much stronger. Violent tornadoes (winds greater than 205 miles an hour) account for only 2% of all tornadoes, they cause 70% of all tornado deaths.

In 1931, a tornado in Minnesota lifted an 83-ton railroad train with 117 passengers and carried it more than 80 feet. A tornado in Oklahoma once carried a motel sign 30 miles and dropped it in Arkansas. In 1975 a Mississippi tornado carried a home freezer more than one mile.

How big are tornadoes?
Most tornadoes are less than 1/4 of a mile wide on the ground, but they can also can exceed 1 mile in width. The McColl tornado in March 1984 (moving from the McColl area into North Carolina) was over 1 1/2 miles on the ground.

Most tornadoes are on the ground 10 minutes or less, but in 1925 a tornado traveled 219 miles across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana in 4 hours.

In 1924, a tornado that started in Aiken County South Carolina traveled 135 miles into Florence County.

How fast can tornadoes move?
The average speed of a tornado is around 35 miles an hour, but they can remain almost stationary or move as fast as 70 miles an hour.

The average tornado moves from southwest to northeast, but they can move in any direction and even change direction.

When are tornadoes most likely?
In the southern United States the peak occurrence of tornadoes is March through May, but tornadoes can occur any time of year. Most tornadoes occur between 3:00 and 9:00pm, but tornadoes can occur at any time of day or night.