Texas Primer: The Tornado

Nature’s most violent creation has a special affinity for Texas.

I was coming from supper, and ven I got to the squvare, I hear the doggondest roaring that I ever see. I stopped and looked aroundt to see vat the matter was. I see that t’ing coming. It looked like to me that a t’ousand steam engines was a-puffing fire and smoke. I looked at that t’ing for a second, and then I says: ‘Markowitz, your time has come.’”

Mr. Markowitz, however, survived to give his account of the 1894 tornado that struck Emory, fifty miles east of Dallas, to the Dallas Morning News. But meeting a Texas tornado eye to eye is just as awesome today as it was back then.

Texas has more tornadoes than any other place in the U.S., about 120 a year. Most steamroller across the state from April to June, but tornadoes can hit any month and any hour. Two thirds of them hit ground just after the hottest part of the day, and intense lightning often comes along with them. Golf-ball-size hail, heavy rain, and a green sky are often signs of an imminent tornado, although the eerie light is associated with the hail, not the high winds.

Tornadoes are born out of thunderstorms, which result from cold and warm air colliding. The theory is that the cold air overtakes the warm air, which rushes upward to escape, and the cold air coming in from all sides gives the warm air its spin. Voilà, a vortex. The problem is that this is just a theory; no one yet knows what makes tornadoes rotate. Regardless, Texas is a great stage for tornadoes because it happens to be located where cold air from the Rockies runs into warm air from the Gulf. Most often a tornado forms out of a rotating, low-hanging appendage to a thunderhead called the wall cloud, which is usually located in the southwest portion of the thunderstorm.

Tornadoes rotate counterclockwise at speeds between a hundred and two hundred miles per hour. Considering how fast they whirl, tornadoes advance at a surprisingly slow speed, about thirty miles per hour, usually cutting a narrow swath a hundred or so yards wide. Most play out within two or four minutes after they touch the ground. But the only absolute rule is that no twister is


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