FAQ: Tornadoes, what they are and how they form

An FAQ on tornadoes and their destructive power.
Damage in Elie, Man., the day after an F5 tornado tore a long, wide path of destruction through the community. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

What causes tornadoes?

Environment Canada describes tornadoes as a vortex of violently circulating winds that extends from the base of a cloud to the Earth's surface. The strongest tornadoes often develop with storms that have a large area of strong wind rotation — called a mesocyclone — within the storm cloud.

The mesocyclone is created by strong updrafts in the storm and wind shear, which causes the air near the surface, whether ground or water, to spin horizontally — like a rolling pin, Environment Canada says. This spin then tilts to a more or less vertical axis and is stretched by strong updrafts, which intensifies the rotation. Strong downdrafts that wrap around the rear of the storm help to bring the rotation down to the Earth's surface. A tornado can form at the boundary between the strong updrafts and downdrafts.

What are the signs of a tornado?

A tornado usually first appears as a rotation in a huge thundercloud, often behind heavy rain or hail. The sky often turns green, yellow or black. The sound can be deafening, often described as being like the rumble of a freight train.

How does a tornado move?

Tornadoes often travel from southwest to northeast. They may last only a few minutes or more than an hour, and can be nearly stationary or travel at speeds of more than 100 kilometres an hour, often leaving a trail of destruction.

If a tornado looks as if it's not moving, it may either moving straight away or straight toward you, says Environment Canada.

Canada's deadliest tornadoes
Regina, Sask.June 30, 191228 dead, hundreds injured
Edmonton, Alta.July 31, 198727 dead, hundreds injured
Windsor, Ont.June 17, 194617 dead, hundreds injured
Pine Lake, Alta.July 14, 200012 dead, 140 injured
Windsor, Ont.April 3, 19749 dead, 30 injured
Valleyfield, Que.Aug. 16, 18889 dead, 14, injured
Barrie, Ont.May 31, 19858 dead, 155 injured
Sudbury, Ont.Aug. 20, 19706 dead, 200 injured
St-Rose, Que.June 14, 18926 dead, 6 injured
Buctouche, N.B.Aug. 6, 18795 dead, 10 injured
Source: Environment Canada

When do tornadoes happen?

Peak months for tornadoes in Canada are June and July, but they can happen anytime from March to October. Winter tornadoes are very rare.

Tornadoes often happen in the afternoon or early evening.

How much damage do they cause?

Many tornadoes do little more than uproot trees and cause minor damage to barns and sheds, but the more violent tornadoes can be devastating.

The most severe tornadoes can level buildings. They've been known to cause a path of destruction more than 100 kilometres long and more than a kilometre wide.

How do we rate tornadoes?

On April 1, 2013, Environment Canada adopted the Enhanced Fujita Scale — or EF-Scale — to measure the strength of a tornado (it had been in use in the U.S. since February 2007). It's an improved version of the original Fujita Scale that was devised in 1971 by a pioneer in tornado research at the University of Chicago, Tetsuya (Ted) Fujita.

The new EF-Scale estimates three-second-gust wind speed inside a tornado based on the damage that's observed by examining a large number of indicators, ranging from residential housing to office towers to trees, as well as ground markings and meteorological data. The EF-Scale damage ratings are backwards-compatible with the original F-Scale, but the associated wind speeds have undergone major changes.

The EF-Scale ranges from 0, for a tornado that pushes over shallow-rooted trees and causes some damage to chimneys and signs, to 5, when houses are lifted off their foundations, vehicles are thrown 100 metres or more, and trees are uprooted and carried long distances.

IntensityWind speedType of damage
EF0104-137 km/hDamage to trees, shingles, antennas and windows.
EF1138-178 km/hTrees uprooted, cars overturned.
EF2179-218 km/hRoofs blown off homes, sheds destroyed, mobile homes flipped.
EF3219-266 km/hWalls, roofs destroyed, metal buildings collapsed, forests destroyed.
EF4267-322 km/hWell-built homes mostly destroyed, heavy objects thrown long distances.
EF5323 km/h or moreHomes destroyed and/or blown great distances, roofs blown off larger structures, which are otherwise heavily damaged.

What's the strongest tornado Canada has recorded?

The strongest documented tornado in Canada's history is the one that hit the southern Manitoba community of Elie on June 22, 2007, according to Environment Canada. It is the only officially confirmed F5 tornado, the highest rating on the original Fujita scale.

The Elie tornado cut a swath of damage up to 300 metres wide, travelled for about 5.5 kilometres and stayed on the ground for 35 minutes. Wind speeds exceeded 420 km/h. No one from the community, population 550, was killed or seriously hurt. Nineteen people were left homeless.

The largest tornado outbreak in the province was Aug. 20, 2009, when 19 confirmed tornadoes developed over southern Ontario.

What are the chances of death from a tornado?

On average, about 60 tornadoes strike across Canada every year (about 43 on the prairies and 17 in Ontario and Quebec), causing one death, about 20 injuries and tens of millions dollars of damage, says Environment Canada, using data gathered between 1980 and 2010.

What should you do if a tornado strikes?

While strong tornadoes can level buildings, the biggest danger during any tornado is generally from flying glass and other debris driven by the extremely high wind speeds.

According to most weather authorities, including Environment Canada, your best option in the event of a tornado is to head for your basement. If you don't have one, get in a closet or small room near the centre of the building, away from windows or doors.

Environment Canada suggests getting into the bathtub and covering yourself with a mattress. Otherwise, get underneath a sturdy piece of furniture which can help shield you from falling or flying debris.

Stay away from places like school gyms, arena rinks and other structures with wide, unsupported roofs.

If you're caught outdoors or in a vehicle, find the nearest ditch and lay low with your head shielded by your arms.

If you're in a mobile home, get out and find a permanent shelter (preferably with a basement) or a ditch. More than half of all tornado deaths occur in mobile homes, Environment Canada says.