Search form


Twister! Understanding -- and Surviving -- Tornadoes

Whether you live in "Tornado Alley" or not, spring brings to your state the increased possibility of a deadly tornado. Are you prepared? Education World helps you learn about the meteorological events that signal the possibility of a tornado and what safety measures you and your students can take to survive.

Tornado GIFEvery time a deadly tornado strikes, it serves as a fresh reminder of the power of nature. It also serves as a reminder of the need for students everywhere to learn about tornadoes, their causes, and the safety precautions that might save lives.


The National Weather Service defines a tornado as "a violently rotating column of air pendant from a thunderstorm cloud and touching the ground." Each year, about 100,000 thunderstorms form over the United States. In an average year, between 600 and 1,000 of those thunderstorms generate tornadoes.

Although most U.S. tornadoes occur in only a handful of states, tornadoes can -- and do -- occur in every state. Every student in the country needs to be prepared to deal with the deadly storms. What do your students know about tornadoes? What do you know?

Do You Know That ...?

  • Tornadoes are the most destructive of all weather-related events.
  • On average, a tornado's path is 4 miles long and 400 yards wide but can be as long as 100 miles and as much as a mile wide.
  • Tornadoes can reach heights of 60,000 feet.
  • The average tornado travels at a speed of 25 to 40 mph., but tornadoes can reach speeds up to 70 mph.
  • Winds inside a tornado can swirl at close to 300 mph.
  • Tornadoes stay on the ground for an average of four to five minutes; however, a tornado can touch down several times.
  • Most tornadoes move from southwest to northeast.
  • Most tornadoes in the Northern Hemisphere rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. Most tornadoes in the Southern Hemisphere rotate in a clockwise direction.
  • Building damage during a tornado happens when high winds cause a buildup of pressure on building surfaces. This pressure is related to wind velocity squared.
  • Most tornadoes occur between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
  • Tornadoes occur throughout the world; however, the greatest number of tornadoes and most intense tornadoes occur in the United States.
  • About 800 tornadoes touch down in the United States each year.
  • Half of all tornadoes occur during the spring months of April, May, and June.
  • Tornadoes can form in any state but they occur most frequently in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.
  • Only 2 percent of tornadoes are considered violent, but those storms cause 70 percent of tornado-related deaths.
  • On average, 100 people are killed by tornadoes each year.
  • A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alert radio receiver, equipped with a warning siren, can warn of an impending tornado when people are sleeping.

What more is there to know? The activities below will help your students explore weather, understand tornadoes and their power, and prepare them to act if a severe storm warning is issued for your area. Severe weather isn't any fun -- but these activities will be!

Note: Most of the activities are for students in grade 3 and above. Starred activities can be used with, or adapted for use with, students in the primary grades as well.


Safety and art -- create a poster. Have students explore tornado safety. Have students work together to create a poster about tornado safety in school. Then ask each student to create a poster about tornado safety at home. Encourage students to take their posters home and discuss them with their families.

Reading -- analyze words. Explain to students that the word tornado comes from the Spanish words tronado, meaning "thunderstorm," and tornar, meaning "to turn." Ask them to make a list of other English words that come from, or are formed from, words in other languages.

Fun and games. Invite students to play one of FEMA's disaster-related games for kids.

Community involvement -- talk to a meteorologist. As a follow up to the previous activity, invite a local meteorologist to visit the classroom to talk about Doppler radar and its use in predicting weather. Have students use what they have learned to prepare questions about Doppler, tornadoes, and local weather for the visitor.


Science -- take a quiz. Encourage students to explore Take the Quiz, prepared by the two eighth graders from Alaska.

Math -- make a double bar graph. Encourage students to track the number of tornadoes that occur during each of the next three months. Then have them make a double bar graph comparing that number to the average number of tornadoes that occur in the United States during each of those months.

Tornado Project Online. This is the definitive site for tornado information. If you can't find it anywhere else, you'll probably find it here. Also check out tornado FAQs.

USA Today Tornado Information Index. This site includes lots of easily read and understood information as well as many great graphics about tornado formation, history, prediction, safety, and more.

FEMA for Kids. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides lots of information for teachers and parents, as well as "Games, Quizzes, and Challenges" for kids.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

Links last updated 3/02/2012