A Comparison of 2 Incredibly Violent Tornadoes

Since it’s late March and freezing, I’ve decided to think warmer thoughts.  This led me – of course – to watch tornado videos on YouTube.  While perusing, I chose to review two infamous tornadoes, and do an “apparent violence” comparison.

The first was the Andover, KS tornado of April 26, 1991 (rated F5).

The second was the Tuscaloosa, AL tornado of April 27, 2011 (rated high-end EF4).

EF4 tornado devastating Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27, 2011.  Image credit: Jason Rosolowksi.

EF4 tornado devastating Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27, 2011. Image credit: Jason Rosolowksi.

F5 tornado ripping through Andover, KS on April 26, 1991.  Image credit: Earl Evans.

F5 tornado ripping through Andover, KS on April 26, 1991. Image credit: Earl Evans.

These tornadoes are often compared with each other, both in size and apparent violence.  Both tornadoes formed in an environment characterized by relatively large temperature-dewpoint spreads, allowing for the visible manifestation of core dynamics within the funnel.  Both tornadoes featured impressive horizontal vortices, as well as rapidly-evolving subvortices with strong upward vertical velocities.  In most videos, these tornadoes appear to be virtually identical in shape, size, and intensity. 

However, if you watch the Andover video, you’ll notice – around 4:35 – that it seems to take its violence a notch upward.  The upward vertical velocities appear to increase as the debris field explodes.  As I understand it, this is the point in the path where that tornado hit the Golden Spur mobile home park and caused F5 damage (unfortunately, also where most of the fatalities occurred). 

The Tuscaloosa tornado was quite violent as well, but it never seemed to attain to the apparent intensity of the Andover tornado.  Officially, the Tuscaloosa tornado was rated high-end EF4.  Does the degree of damage confirm the visual inspection?  Or, was the construction of buildings in Tuscaloosa not up to standards, making such comparisons impossible?

To be fair, though, there are at least two other factors to consider.    First, the translational speed of the tornadoes may have impacted the degree of damage.   Though the forward motion of both tornadoes was comparable, the Tuscaloosa tornado was translating ~10 mph faster.  Since the tornadoes were about the same size (when they were most damaging), one can deduce that the Andover tornado spent more time at each location it hit.  Thus, one might expect the Andover tornado to produce a higher degree of damage (even though the tornadic winds would be slightly higher in the Tuscaloosa tornado, given the translational speed).

Second, it’s possible that the most intense portions of the Tuscaloosa tornado were visually obscured by condensation.  Often, this is the reason why some large and violent tornadoes don’t appear incredibly intense, but damage surveys reveal extreme damage.  I suppose one could estimate the lifted condensation level (LCL) and ballpark it, but I’ll leave that to someone else!

Nevertheless, to date, I have not seen a video of a large tornado that is more violent than the Andover tornado.  Are there any other candidates?  Perhaps the Xenia F5 tornado (April 3, 1974) was as violent?

What other tornadoes would you place in this category?


About Gabe Garfield

I am a research meteorologist from Norman, Oklahoma. In addition to my work, I am interested in storm chasing, sports, philosophy, theology, and culture.
This entry was posted in General, Weather and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Comparison of 2 Incredibly Violent Tornadoes

  1. allthingsgeography1 says:

    May 3, 1999: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DvoIMvAkQ8

    If you skip to 5:15-6:05, one thing that strikes me is the enormous debris cloud/debris-fall extending well away from the condensation funnel (lesson here: the tornado’s areal extent doesn’t end where the cloud funnel stops). I’ve seen video that goes some seconds beyond what they show in this particular video where the tornado vortex of course displays intense vertical velocities and even a strong snaking horizontal vortex. Still, I would tend to agree that Andover seems to be the most visually intense and almost screams violence. When I was young in the early/mid-1990s, Andover was the tornado I always saw in tornado documentaries.

    • Good observation! Amazing how much debris was in that tornado … the field may have been two, or even three times the radius of the tornado itself. Yeah, those horizontal vortices seem to accompany only the most intense tornadoes! Matter-of-fact, my next blog post will cover that subject (as it relates to the 2011 Super Outbreak).

    • Gabriel Turner says:

      The Andover and Bridge Creek tornado were probably of similar violence in my opinion. The Hesston, Kansas tornado on March 13, 1990 as it is doing F5 damage is right down incredible. The multiple vortices inside that tornado blows my mind.

  2. allthingsgeography1 says:

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography.

  3. Heidi Farrar says:

    Gabe, after posting the Columbus, NE link on your Facebook page (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNOlL5tWxTg), I thought I’d share some additional videos as a comment here on your blog. These are some others of similar size and shape that have I’ve seen, all of which that combination of very violent upward motion and/or horizontal vortices (the latter of which some of us have affectionately dubbed “octopus tentacles” :-). I have to say that it’s hard to find one quite like the Columbus, NE tornado, but that is almost in it’s own category for me, since it is obviously filmed from a much closer distance than any of these:

    May 31, 1998 Spencer, South Dakota: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2WZJC4by0c

    April 26, 1991 Red Rock, OK tornado http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv9n-2Wpe2g (What a day…)

    November 10, 2002 Van Wert, OH — The video quality here is terrible, but the original, much more impressive video is on Bill Hark’s “Easter Fury” DVD compilation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymVEDKlBUEU Another tornado on that DVD, the F5 from Tennessee on April 16, 1998, was similarly violent-appearing, if I remember correctly, but I can’t find decent video of it online.

    Philadelphia, MS — I’ve watched the raw HD version of this many numbers of times; the upward motion with this is *really* incredible. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhKjv9GuARQ As I am sure a lot of folks have noticed, it seems that many of the tornadoes from that day had this same upward motion/horizontal vortex action happening.

    There is a lot of video of the Kanapolis Lake EF-4 from last April 14, but Tim Samaras’ video captures that one’s violent motion especially well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_QRG-TsfBc

    • Thanks for posting those links, Heidi! Some really incredible tornadoes there. The Columbus tornado is the most impressive to me (part 2 of video 1), because of the obvious nature of its intensity: the front-lit west side afforded a fantastic view of the violent vertical motion. It’s so hard to believe that a tornado that wide could be that violent! The Red Rock tornado is also on par with it, in my opinion. Once the tornado crossed I-35, many chasers were treated to a front-lit view of its explosive vertical velocities. The Kanapolis Lake EF4 may have been in that category as well. Phenomenal stuff.

      I may be in the minority, but it seems to me that Spencer, Van Wert, and Tuscaloosa were a notch below the other tornadoes in intensity. Again, these tornadoes are subject to the caveats above, but – based on the video evidence alone – it seems like they weren’t quite up to “Andover” intensity. Nevertheless, when you start seeing horizontal funnels, you know you have a major-league tornado on your hand!

      Another candidate that Chris Schultz pointed out to me was the Phil Campbell tornado of April 27, 2011. The tornado was phenomenally large and violent, as you can see in the videos below:

      Thanks for weighing in, Heidi! 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    the may3 ,1999 OKC/MOORE tornado, Joplin , and the 2013 moore tornadoes are more intense and violent as well as more destructive. forgot to mention the Xenia ohio tornado of 1974.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Brandenburg, KY and Guin, AL from the same day as Xenia 4/3/74 were likely stronger than Xenia. Canton Lake, OK ’11 reminds me of several of these. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=915AvkUrnLk Though they don’t look similar, since they’re very narrow, Elie and Pampa have incredibly explosive action. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Rl-IlMpfUo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1xyBIn9Y9s Jarrell ’97 probably has the most intense wind damage ever recorded. I think one of the tornadoes they show at the beginning of the vid (:55) is, in fact, Andover, though.

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