Storm Safe: Debunking common tornado myths

TULSA, Okla. — Oklahoma is known for its history of tornadoes, and as history goes on, rumors and myths can form about how tornadoes actually work.

FOX23 Certified Meteorologist Mike Grogan took the time to hear some of the myths people have about tornadoes and debunk them.

Myth 1: Tornadoes cannot cross, or weaken when moving over hills, rivers and tall buildings

The size of any hill around here is just a small fraction of the overall circulation of a tornado, which means it will not be meaningfully impacted by it.

There are even a few instances where terrain features are thought to aid in temporarily strengthening a tornado.

A river does nothing to weaken a tornado either -- the water temperature will not affect its strength.

Tall buildings are also small in scope compared to the size of a tornado and will not disrupt its circulation.

Myth 2: Tornadoes follow highways or waterways

It’s not uncommon for a tornado to parallel a major highway like I-44, but it’s not the presence of the highway or the limited amount of heat generated from the pavement that causes this.

A tornado may take a similar path to the orientation of the turnpike because favorable upper-level winds for tornadoes often are parallel to it this time of year.

Streams and other rivers do not have any impact on the direction of a tornado, just like the strength of one as mentioned earlier.

Myth 3: There is a calm before a tornado

Strong inflow winds accompany most tornadoes because this is part of how they are generated. This means the winds will tend to get stronger as a tornado approaches.

There are two ways this myth is partially true, however.

Before a tornado forms, converging air at the surface beneath the updraft can limit wind flow.

That same updraft can also cut off rain and hail just before a tornado arrives because all of the precipitation is held aloft in some instances that could also create this effect of a calm before a tornado strikes.

Myth 4: Opening windows or going to the southwest corner of a building keeps you safer from a tornado

Decades ago, both of these myths were common beliefs.

Opening windows was thought to equalize air pressure to prevent a building from exploding from the rapid change or difference in pressure. Since no building is perfectly airtight, this not a risk.

Opening windows just allows for debris to more readily enter a house.

Going to the southwest corner of the building was thought to protect you from debris as well a tornado moved from southwest to northeast

This is false, not only for the reason that tornadoes can arrive from any direction, but the airflow in a vortex will distribute debris and cause damage in erratic ways. This puts anywhere exposed at risk, not just particular sides of buildings.

Putting as many walls between you and the tornado is the best way to stay safe since adding these barriers simply offers more protection from the debris.

Clinging to debunked myths like these can lull people into a false sense of security when tornado warnings are issued.

However, more fact-based knowledge can help you be better prepared to be safe in the next storm.

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