Infographic: 56 Years Of America's Most Terrifying Tornadoes

Actionable tip: If you don’t like tornadoes, move out west.

Growing up in the Midwest, I always knew that tornadoes were more of a thing for us than other parts of the U.S. But that never really hit home until I viewed this glowing, clawed map of the U.S. by John Nelson, where each glowing etch represents the path of a tornado tracked in the last 56 years by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Click to zoom.

"Probably the most challenging aspect of making the map was just paring back on what to show. Early drafts had all sorts of summaries, and data references, and a more complicated map because there is so much great information in the data," Nelson tells Co.Design. "But when I just drew the data largely as-is on the map, it immediately had a clear message and visual punch."

For a Midwesterner, that punch is undeniable. The middle of the country has seen Tron’s wrath—how anything has been left standing in this luminescently ravaged zone is beyond me. The East Coast has had their share of tornadoes. And the West? It’s basically one big tornado-free zone.

But there’s more to see here than just where tornadoes happened. Nelson designates each tornado’s Fujita scale ranking—F0 to F5—by its brightness. So the biggest, baddest tornadoes glow the brightest. And what I quickly pieced together was that, from what I could tell, the bigger tornadoes traveled the furthest because the longest lines seemed to be the brightest. Notably, this wasn’t a hypothesis that Nelson had even considered, but checking the data, he realized that his visualization had taught us both something we hadn’t realized before. "Turns out the more voracious the storm the farther it tends to travel," he wrote. "You sent me back to the data on this one to verify, and sure enough. Here’s a breakdown by F-scale:

F0: 7 Deaths, 267 Injuries, 2 Miles
F1: 111 Deaths, 3,270 Injuries, 6.58 Miles
F2: 363 Deaths, 10,373 Injuries, 11.4 Miles
F3: 958 Deaths, 18,160 Injuries, 17.80 Miles
F4: 1,912 Deaths, 28,427 Injuries, 28.62 Miles
F5: 1,013 Deaths, 11,038 Injuries, 38.87 Miles
"

Of course, a bit of further research shows these results may actually be correlative. You see, the Fujita scale doesn’t actually convey tornado size as many of us have come to believe. It’s actually an approximation of tornado severity based upon its damage—from broken branches, to uprooted trees to missing houses—not a measurement of circumference or wind speed. (Or at least, it wasn’t, until in the last few years scientists have agreed on the "enhanced" Fujita scale that accommodates for factors like wind speed.)

With that in mind, of course the tornadoes that traveled the furthest tended to have the highest Fujita scale rankings—a small tornado that hit the ground more often would cause more measurable damage than a large tornado that stayed in the sky. In other words, Nelson’s graphic taught me one last lesson: The biggest tornadoes aren’t the scariest. The longest ones are. (Though certainly, many of the longest tornadoes are the biggest, too.)

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7 Comments

  • Christine Shock

    has anyone overlaid a topo map over this...I have a feeling some of the clear dark spots in the midwest may have higher topographical features than the brightly colored spots....I know that in Denver our tornadoes don't seem to be able to get the speed or the spin of tornados in Omaha (lived both places)...I'm wondering what topography would tell us as well...

  • Guybrush

    Do all tornadoes move in a straight line? Or is that just a product of how the paths was plotted here?

  • GailJr

    no they do not move in a straight line.  they generally follow the path of the storm system they are associated with but that isn't always true.  The one thing predictable about a tornado is it is unpredictable. 

  • Robby777

    Yeah!  Earthquakes and leeching mine tailings not withstanding !
    tornados follow the coriolus effect, gyroscopic permutations like a top, temperature gradients - just to name a few of the factors involved.