Tornado warning

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F5 tornado near Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007

A tornado warning (SAME code: TOR) is a severe weather warning product issued by national weather forecasting agencies throughout the world to alert the public that severe thunderstorms with tornadoes are imminent or occurring. It can be issued after a tornado, funnel cloud and rotation in the clouds has been spotted by the public, storm chasers, emergency management or law enforcement.

When this happens, the tornado sirens may sound in that area if any sirens are present, informing people that a tornado has been sighted or may be forming nearby. (Because sirens are generally not heard indoors, residents should not completely depend on them.) The issuance of a tornado warning indicates that residents should take immediate safety precautions.

It is a higher level of alert than a tornado watch, but (in the United States) it can be surpassed by an even higher alert known as a tornado emergency or particularly dangerous situation (PDS) warning. Tornado watches do not need to be issued prior nor concurrent to the issuance of a tornado warning.

Early history[edit]

The first official tornado forecast—and tornado warning—was made by United States Air Force Capt. (later Col.) Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush, on March 25, 1948. The first such forecast came after the events that occurred five days earlier on March 20, 1948; Miller – a California native who became stationed at Tinker Air Force Base three weeks earlier – was assigned to work the late shift as a forecaster for the base's Air Weather Service office that evening, analyzing U.S. Weather Bureau surface maps and upper-air charts that failed to note atmospheric instability and moisture content present over Oklahoma that would be suitable for producing thunderstorm activity, erroneously forecasting dry conditions for that night. Thunderstorms soon developed southwest of Oklahoma City, and at 9:30 p.m., forecasters from Will Rogers Airport sent a warning to Tinker that the storm encroaching the city was producing wind gusts of 92 miles per hour (148 km/h) and a "Tornado South on Ground Moving NE!" Base personnel received an alert written by the staff sergeant on duty with Miller, minutes before the twister struck Tinker several minutes later around 10:00 p.m., damaging several military aircraft (with total damage estimated at $10 million) that could not be secured in time before it crossed the base grounds.[1]

Following an inquiry the next day before a tribunal of five generals who traveled to Tinker from Washington, D.C., who ruled that the March 20 tornado was an "act of God[...] not forecastable given the present state of the art", base commander Gen. Fred Borum tasked Miller and Fawbush to follow up on the board's suggestion to consider methods of forecasting tornadic thunderstorms. Over the next three days, Miller and Fawbush studied reports and charts from previous tornado events to determine the atmospheric conditions favorable for the development of tornadic activity, in an effort to predict such events with some degree of accuracy. At the time, there had not been studies on how tornadoes formed; however, military radars were being adapted for forecasting use, allowing forecasters to see the outlines of storms but not their internal attributes such as rotation. Miller and Fawbush's findings on atmospheric phenomenon present in past outbreaks would aid in their initial forecast, as the day's surface and upper-air analysis charts determined the same conditions present on March 20 were present on the 25th, concluded that central Oklahoma would have the highest risk for tornadoes during the late-afternoon and evening.[1]

Borum, who had put together a severe weather safety plan for base personnel, then suggested that Miller and Fawbush issue a severe thunderstorm forecast, and then asked the men if they would issue a tornado forecast based on the similarities between the conditions that produced the tornado which hit the base five days earlier, which they were reluctant to do. Fawbush wrote the forecast message that Miller would type and issued it to base operations at 2:50 p.m. as thunderstorms were approaching from North Texas. Defying the high odds of two tornadoes hitting the same area in five days, one hit the Tinker campus around 6:00 p.m., to the surprise of Miller (who left the base an hour earlier, believing their forecast would not pan out), who found out about the storm (produced by two thunderstorms that merged to the southwest of Tinker) via a radio report. Miller and Fawbush would not put out another tornado forecast until March 25, 1949, when they successfully predicted tornadic activity would occur in southeastern Oklahoma.[1][2]

Miller and Fawbush soon would distribute their tornado forecasts to the American Red Cross and Oklahoma Highway Patrol, after giving William Maughan, chief meteorologist at the U.S. Weather Bureau's Oklahoma City office (who provided them with additional archived weather data to help fine-tune their forecasts), permission to relay their forecasts to those agencies. The relative accuracy of the forecasts restarted a debate over their reliability and whether military or civilian agencies should have jurisdiction over the issuance of weather warnings.[2] The USAF had pioneered tornado forecasting and tornado warnings, although John P. Finley had developed the first experimental tornado forecasts in 1885. Two years later, he and other officials with the agency were prohibited by the United States Signal Service's weather service from using the word "tornado" in forecasts. They were instead directed to refer to "severe local storms", a move motivated by concerns by businessmen in the Great Plains that Finley's forecasts would hurt economic development if potential investors believed their areas were tornado-prone. This position on tornado forecasting would be shared with the U.S. Weather Bureau after it was formation in 1890, fearing that it would incite panic among the public if tornadoes were predicted to occur; the side effect of this was that the lack of warning resulted in a steady increase in the number of tornado-related fatalities through the 1950s, with some events prior to 1948 (such as the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, the Tri-State Tornado in March 1925, and the Glazier–Higgins–Woodward tornadoes in April 1947) having death tolls that exceeded well over 100.[3]

In 1938, the Weather Bureau rescinded its ban on the usage of the word "tornado" in weather products disseminated to emergency management personnel. The Bureau would develop a network of volunteer storm spotters in the early 1940s during World War II, to provide warning of tornadoes to workers in munitions plants and strategic factories.[3] The ban on issuing tornado warnings to the general public would not be revoked until Chief of Bureau Francis W. Reichelderfer officially lifted the ban in a Circular Letter issued on July 12, 1950 to all first order stations: "Weather Bureau employees should avoid statements that can be interpreted as a negation of the Bureau's willingness or ability to make tornado forecasts", and that a "good probability of verification" exist when issuing such forecasts due to the difficulty in accurately predicting tornadic activity.[4] The American Meteorological Society agreed to have Miller and Fawbush present their methodology for forecasting tornadoes during the organization's 1950 meeting in St. Louis; after garnering press coverage for their successful prediction of past tornadoes, AMS representatives decided to open the presentation to the public.[3]

The Air Force began issuing severe weather forecasts relayed to Weather Bureau offices and emergency personnel in tornado-prone regions through the formation of the Severe Weather Warning Center in 1951, before the Bureau's contention that the USAF intruded on its responsibility to relay such forecasts led to the SWWC limiting the release of its tornado forecasts to military personnel; however, the move to prohibit the USAF from widespread releasing of tornado forecasts led to disapproval and heavy criticism from Oklahoma media outlets, given the agency's continued refusal to provide public tornado warnings. The Weather Bureau issued its first experimental public tornado forecast in March 1952, which proved inaccurate and was released too late to become widely available for public consumption; however, a forecast issued the following evening managed to predict an outbreak of tornadoes across most of the warned seven-state area (from Texas to Indiana).[3]

Even after the U.S. Weather Bureau lifted their ban on tornado warnings, the Federal Communications Commission continued to ban television and radio outlets from broadcasting tornado warnings on-air for the same reasoning cited in the Bureau's abolished ban. Broadcast media followed this ban until 1954, when meteorologist Harry Volkman broadcast the first televised tornado warning over WKY-TV (now KFOR-TV) in Oklahoma City, due to his belief that the banning of tornado warnings over broadcast media cost lives. Through an alert issued by the USAF Severe Weather Warning Center, Volkman opted to interrupt regular programming to warn viewers of a reported tornado approaching the Oklahoma City area; although station management and U.S. Weather Bureau officials were displeased with his move, WKY-TV received numerous telephone calls and letters thanking Volkman for the warning.[5][6][7]

Tornado alert[edit]

For many years until the early 1980s, an intermediate type of tornado advisory known as a tornado alert was defined by the National Weather Service and issued by the agency's local forecast offices, indicating that tornado formation was imminent. In theory, tornado alerts covered situations such as visible rotation in clouds and certain other phenomena which are portents of funnel cloud formation. The National Weather Service's use of this advisory began to decline after 1974, although it was still listed on public information materials issued by various media outlets, local NWS offices and other entities for another decade or so.

The criteria which called for tornado alerts in the past now generally result in a tornado warning with clarifying verbiage specifying that the warning was issued because rotation was detected in one way or another, that a wall cloud has formed or a tornado has been spotted or detected. The preferred response to both the tornado alerts and warnings is to take shelter immediately, so distinguishing them could be seen as splitting hairs, especially since storm prediction methods have improved.

The tornado alert was finally eliminated outright because it was made largely obsolete by the advent of Doppler weather radar, which can detect rotational funnel cloud formations earlier than is typically possible by trained spotters and members of the public. With fewer false-positives, radar also helped reduce public confusion over storm types, strengths and precise locations. The last tornado alert to be officially issued was discussed in earnest following the 1974 Super Outbreak.

Fire tornado warning[edit]

On August 15, 2020, for the first time in its history, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for pyrocumulonimbus capable of causing a fire tornado for southeastern Lassen County, California, which was being affected by the Loyalton Fire.[8][9][10]

Tornado emergency[edit]

The National Weather Service has the option of issuing a tornado emergency, a severe weather statement with unofficial, enhanced wording that is disseminated when a large, extremely violent tornado is about to impact a densely populated area. This category of weather statement is the highest and most urgent level relating to tornadoes, albeit an unofficial alert product. The first tornado emergency was declared on May 3, 1999, when an F5 tornado struck southern portions of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, causing major damage exceeding $1 billion. In some cases, such as an F3 tornado that struck the Indianapolis, Indiana metropolitan area on September 20, 2002, a tornado emergency has been declared within the initial issuance of the tornado warning. Not all confirmed tornadoes will be considered a "tornado emergency", and such statements are commonly declared when it is believed that the tornado is at a severity in which it would cause a significant threat to life and property.

The levels of severity increase as follows:

  1. Convective Outlook mentioning tornado potential
  2. Public Severe Weather Outlook mentioning tornado potential
  3. Tornado Watch
  4. Particularly Dangerous Situation Tornado Watch
  5. Tornado Warning
  6. Particularly Dangerous Situation Tornado Warning (used by Weather Forecast Offices within the National Weather Service Central Region Headquarters as an intermediate warning in the event that a tornado has been spotted or confirmed, or a significant tornado is expected)[11]
  7. Tornado Emergency

Tornado warnings can also be intensified by added wording mentioning that the storm is life-threatening, that it is an extremely dangerous situation, that a large, violent and/or destructive tornado is on the ground or is capable of causing significant property damage.


A tornado warning is issued when any of the following conditions has occurred:

A tornado warning means there is immediate danger for the warned area and immediate surrounding locations – if not from the relatively narrow tornado itself, from the severe thunderstorm producing (or likely to produce) it. Those in the path of such a storm are urged to take cover immediately, as it is a life-threatening situation. A warning is different from a tornado watch (issued in the United States by a national guidance center, the Storm Prediction Center) which only indicates that conditions are favorable for the formation of tornadoes.

Generally (but not always), a tornado warning also indicates that the potential is there for severe straight-line winds and/or large hail (in the United States, winds exceeding 58 miles per hour (93 km/h) and/or hail larger than 1 inch (2.5 cm) are the respective defined criteria to classify such phenomena as severe; the criteria varies in other countries) from the thunderstorm.[13] A severe thunderstorm warning can be upgraded suddenly to a tornado warning should conditions warrant.[13]

In the United States, local Weather Forecast Offices of the National Weather Service outline warnings for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in polygonal shapes for map-based weather hazard products distributed to the main agency, individual forecast office websites and the Storm Prediction Center (including open-source APIs available for free use to public weather websites and mobile apps), based on the storm's projected path as determined by Doppler radar at the time of the warning's issuance. In NWS text products, warnings are usually illustrated by individual counties, parishes or other county-equivalent jurisdictions (sections or the entirety thereof, and in list format if it covers more than one jurisdiction), particularly dependent on the jurisdiction's total land area. Prior to October 2007, warnings were issued by the National Weather Service on a per-county basis.[14] SPC and NWS products as well as severe weather alert displays dubbed as "First Warning", used by some television stations typically highlight tornado warnings with a red polygon or filled county/parish/equivalent jurisdiction outline.

Tornado warnings are generated via the Advance Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) and then disseminated through various communication routes accessed by the media and various agencies, on the internet, to NOAA satellites, and on NOAA Weather Radio.[15] Tornado sirens are also usually activated for the affected areas if present (the actual areas where sirens are activated may vary depending on the relay structure of a given jurisdiction's siren network, with some municipalities activating all sirens within their network even in areas not referenced as being included in the warning). Local police or fire departments may dispatch crews not assigned to an existing emergency call to travel within a designated area to warn residents to take tornado safety precautions if sirens are disabled due to technical problems or are not present, while automated phone calls may be made to residents for the same purpose in some areas should such disruptions occur.[16] Additionally, if it is deemed necessary, the National Weather Service has the option of requesting activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to interrupt television and radio broadcasts to get the bulletin out quickly.

In March 2012, as part of its implementation of a multi-tier Impact Based Warning (IBW) system to notify the public and emergency management officials of the severity of specific severe weather phenomena, the NWS Weather Forecast Offices in Wichita and Topeka, Kansas, and Springfield, St. Louis and Kansas City/Pleasant Hill, Missouri began incorporating categorical tornado and damage threat indicators for visually confirmed and radar-indicated tornadoes at the bottom of the text products for tornado warnings (including update statements to existing warnings issued as Severe Weather Statements):[17]

  • Radar Indicated – Doppler radar indicates the thunderstorm is exhibiting mesocyclonic circulation supportive of tornado formation; generally requires no visual confirmation of a tornado at the time of the warning's issuance or update.
  • Observed – Tornado is visually confirmed by storm spotters, law enforcement or other emergency personnel.
  • Considerable (originally "Significant" during the 2012 Kansas and Missouri tests) – Damage indicator included when credible evidence exists that a tornado capable of producing considerable damage is imminent or ongoing.
  • Catastrophic – Damage indicator included when reliable sources confirm a violent tornado with a severe threat to human life and catastrophic property damage is occurring.

The categorical criteria—which is applicable to all NWS Weather Forecast Offices, primarily those operating within the agency's Central and Southern Region divisions—was introduced to further communicate to the public and prevent complacency of the threat of tornadoes. The NWS expanded the threat and damage indicators to 33 additional Central Region WFOs in March 2013; eight additional offices operating within the Eastern, Southern and Western Region divisions began using the IBW indicators in March 2014.[17]

In Canada, similar criteria are used and warnings are issued by regional offices of the Meteorological Service of Canada branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax[18] (in the province of Ontario, Emergency Management Ontario recently[when?] began issuing red alerts for areas of the province that are already under an Environment Canada-issued tornado warning; these red alerts sometimes override the tornado warning if local government or media are participating in the program).

Advances in technology, both in identifying conditions and in distributing warnings effectively, have been credited with reducing the death toll from tornadoes. The average warning times have increased substantially from -10 to -15 minutes in 1974 to about 15 minutes as of 2013 (in some cases, the lead time can extend to more than an hour's warning of impending tornadoes). In the United States, the tornado death rate has declined from 1.8 deaths per million people per year in 1925 to only 0.11 per million in 2000.[19] Much of this change is credited to improvements in the tornado warning system, via the various advances in the detection of severe local storms, along with an increase in reports visually confirming severe weather activity via storm spotters, public officials and citizens.[citation needed]

Ground truthing[edit]

The SKYWARN program, which trains citizens on how to spot tornadoes, funnel clouds, wall clouds, and other severe weather phenomena, is offered by the National Weather Service.[20] Used in tandem with Doppler radar information, eyewitness reports can be very helpful for warning the public of an impending tornado, especially when used for ground truthing.[21]

Other spotter groups such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, news media, local law enforcement agencies/emergency management organizations, cooperative observers, and the general public also relay information to the National Weather Service for ground truthing.[22]


Below is an example of a Tornado Warning issued by the National Weather Service office in Topeka, Kansas. The audio files on the right are for Greensburg, Kansas and upstate South Carolina.[23]

Tornado Warning

Tornado Warning 
National Weather Service Topeka KS
933 PM CDT Thu Aug 15 2019

The National Weather Service in Topeka has issued a

* Tornado Warning for...
  Northeastern Morris County in east central Kansas...
  Southwestern Wabaunsee County in east central Kansas...
  Northwestern Lyon County in east central Kansas...

* Until 10:00 PM CDT.

* At 932 PM CDT, a confirmed tornado was located 7 miles east of Alta
  Vista, moving southeast at 20 mph.

  HAZARD...Damaging tornado and golf ball size hail.

  SOURCE...Weather spotters confirmed tornado.

  IMPACT...Flying debris will be dangerous to those caught without
           shelter. Mobile homes will be damaged or destroyed.
           Damage to roofs, windows, and vehicles will occur.  Tree
           damage is likely.

* This tornadic thunderstorm will remain over mainly rural areas of
  northeastern Morris, southwestern Wabaunsee and northwestern Lyon


To repeat, a tornado is on the ground. TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a
basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy
building. Avoid windows. If you are outdoors, in a mobile home, or in
a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect
yourself from flying debris.


LAT...LON 3886 9647 3898 9636 3887 9618 3881 9624
      3869 9613 3863 9633
TIME...MOT...LOC 0232Z 309DEG 18KT 3882 9635




Below is an example of tornado warning for a pyrocumulonimbus capable of causing a fire tornado.[24]

WFUS55 KREV 152135

Tornado Warning
National Weather Service Reno NV
235 PM PDT Sat Aug 15 2020

The National Weather Service in Reno has issued a

* Tornado Warning for...
  Southeastern Lassen County in northern California...

* Until 330 PM PDT.

* At 228 PM PDT, a pyrocumulonimbus from the Loyalton Wildfire is
  capable of producing a fire induced tornado and outflow winds in
  excess of 60 mph was located south of Chilcoot, and is nearly


  SOURCE...Radar indicated rotation.

  IMPACT...Extreme fire behavior with strong outflow winds capable
           of downing trees and starting new fires. This is and
           extremely dangerous situation for fire fighters.

* This tornadic pyrocumulonimbus will remain over mainly rural areas
  of southeastern Lassen County in the vicinity of the fire.


TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest
floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If you are outdoors, in a
mobile home, or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter
and protect yourself from flying debris.


LAT...LON 3975 12012 3972 12007 3970 12014 3971 12015
      3973 12015
TIME...MOT...LOC 2128Z 240DEG 0KT 3972 12013




Below is an example of an Environment Canada-issued tornado warning for southeastern Saskatchewan.

WFCN13 CWWG 262334
AT 5:34 PM CST TUESDAY 26 JUNE 2012.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Nancy Mathis (2007). Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado. Touchstone. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-0-7432-8053-2.
  2. ^ a b Nancy Mathis (2007). Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado. Touchstone. pp. 44–47. ISBN 978-0-7432-8053-2.
  3. ^ a b c d Nancy Mathis (2007). Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado. Touchstone. pp. 47–53. ISBN 978-0-7432-8053-2.
  4. ^ Roger Edwards. "The Online Tornado FAQ". Storm Prediction Center. Retrieved July 6, 2009.
  5. ^ "Tulsa TV Weather". Tulsa TV Memories. Retrieved February 11, 2012.
  6. ^ Timothy A. Coleman (May 2011). "The History (and Future) of Tornado Warning Dissemination in the United States". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. American Meteorological Society. 92 (5): 567–582. Bibcode:2011BAMS...92..567C. doi:10.1175/2010BAMS3062.1.
  7. ^ Nancy Mathis (2007). Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado. Touchstone. pp. 85. ISBN 978-0-7432-8053-2.
  8. ^ Culver, Jordan (August 17, 2020). "What is a fire tornado? 'Extreme fire activity' sparks rare weather warning at Loyalton Fire near Reno". USA Today. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  9. ^ A ‘fire tornado’ warning? Weather service issues what could be a first at California blaze
  10. ^ "Tornado Warning". National Weather Service. August 15, 2020. Archived from the original on August 15, 2020. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  11. ^ "'CATASTROPHIC': Experimental Tornado Warnings to be Explicit". AccuWeather. AccuWeather, Inc. April 5, 2012. Retrieved March 12, 2014.
  12. ^ a b "Tornado Warning". NOAA National Weather Service Glossary. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  13. ^ a b Paul Howerton (June 12, 2008). "Tornado Warning". Iowa Environmental Mesonet NWS Product Archive. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  14. ^ "Storm-Based Warnings: Why Storm-Based Warnings?". NOAA Warning Decision Training Branch. February 26, 2008. Archived from the original on 2010-01-24. Retrieved January 11, 2010.
  15. ^ "NWS Dissemination Services". NWS Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  16. ^ National Weather Service Twin Cities, MN (April 22, 2010). "Severe Weather Awareness Week". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Archived from the original on April 26, 2010. Retrieved December 15, 2010.
  17. ^ a b "Impact Based Warnings". National Weather Service. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2014.
  18. ^ "Prairie and Northern Region Weather Watch and Weather Warning Criteria: Tornado warning". Environment Canada. Archived from the original on November 19, 2007. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  19. ^ "Tornado Warnings Infographic". Matt Cutt's Alerts. Archived from the original on July 16, 2013. Retrieved July 18, 2013.
  20. ^ "SKYWARN". SKYWARN. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  21. ^ Andy Wood (November 10, 2008). "Spotter Report Data Quality". Warning Decision Training Branch: 3. Retrieved January 10, 2010. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ Andy Wood (November 10, 2008). "Spotter Report Data Quality". Warning Decision Training Branch: 4. Retrieved January 10, 2010. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  23. ^ "IEM :: Valid Time Extent Code (VTEC) App". Iowa Environmental Mesonet. Iowa State University. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  24. ^ Tornado Warning