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How Far Away Can You Hear a Tornado? The Surprising Answer!

tornado funnel cloud

When it comes to natural disasters, few are as feared as the terrible tornado. Tornadoes are incredibly unpredictable, even with today’s advanced storm-chasing technology. Yes, they’re more apt to appear during a storm, but from where and when is difficult to determine with any accuracy.

On average, you can hear a tornado coming from about 1.5 miles away but occasionally from up to 4 miles away. You would think that would give you plenty of time to seek shelter, but as you’ll see below, certain factors make listening for a tornado an unreliable detection method.

Below you’ll find answers to many tornado-related questions, plus real-world tips and advice for what to do if a tornado is approaching. It’s essential info that could save your life and the lives of those you love.

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Is Sound the Best Way to Tell if a Tornado Is Approaching?

Although tornados do make a lot of noise when they destroy buildings, uproot signs, and toss cars around like toys, the truth is that listening for the sound of an approaching tornado is the worst way to tell if one is looming. Storm Track, the online tornado and storm-chasing forum, determined in one study that most tornados produce very little sound, at least that’s audible to humans. Storm Track found that, of the 92 tornadoes involved in their study, only 14 had made any discernible sounds.

Image By: Prettysleepy, Pixabay

What Can a Tornado Sound Like?

Although they don’t often make noise, some tornadoes do, and those tornadoes can sound similar to several things. One of the most common sounds is the sound of a freight train approaching at high speed, but according to storm chasers and tornado survivors, tornadoes can also sound like the following:

  • Thunder that doesn’t stop rumbling
  • The sound of an airplane taking off
  • A massive swarm of bees
  • A large waterfall
  • Power lines that are exploding
  • An earthquake

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How Can You Tell if a Tornado Is Approaching?

Since you can’t rely on your ears to tell you if a tornado is approaching, you might wonder what the best method is to determine if you need to find shelter fast. Luckily there are a few methods, some human-made, that will warn you that a tornado is approaching or might start forming sometime soon.

Tornado Sirens

Tornado sirens are common in parts of the United States, where tornadoes are most common, including the Great Plains, Midwest, Southern US, and the Mississippi Valley. What’s fascinating is that most tornado sirens are repurposed air raid sirens leftover from the 2nd World War, most of which were barely used during that time. Unfortunately, during a particularly violent and noisy storm, the sound of the siren might get lost.

The Wind Suddenly Dies Down

One of the scariest things that can happen if you live where tornadoes are common is for a storm to suddenly and inexplicably die down, so much so that it’s as if the storm disappeared. Unfortunately, this is a “calm before the storm” type of situation, and if you’re watching as it happens, you should seek shelter ASAP. Often the temperature will drop dramatically, so much that it’s highly noticeable. In either case, don’t walk but run to the nearest shelter.

The Sky Is Lit Up with Lightning

Major thunderstorms produce immense amounts of lightning, and the resulting light show can often be beautiful from far away. However, if you live where tornadoes occur frequently, and there’s lightning all over the place, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the weather or a tornado tracking app on your phone.

Image By: PatrickBlaise, Pixabay

It Starts to Hail

During a severe thunderstorm, water droplets are lifted far up into the atmosphere, where they turn into the frozen and destructive substance we know as hail. A tornado can do the same thing, so if it starts hailing during a storm, seek shelter immediately (and park your car indoors).

The Sky Turns an Impressive Shade of Green

Although the sky turning a green color doesn’t mean a tornado is imminent, it’s pretty close. After a storm or tornado lifts millions of water droplets into the sky, those droplets absorb the red color frequencies from the sun and radiate green instead. In other words, if the sky is green, move away from the scene.

You See the Classic Funnel Shape

Tornadoes are one of the most ubiquitous storms that occur, and the funnel-like form they take is something even grade school children immediately recognize. If you happen to see a tornado’s funnel in person, your best bet is to move away from it quickly or seek shelter.

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Is there Always Silence Before a Tornado?

Occasionally, the sound, wind, and commotion caused by a major thunderstorm will inexplicably and suddenly die down. This phenomenon is similar to when you’re in the “eye” of a hurricane.

One reason this silent treatment occurs is that, typically, tornadoes occur at the tail end of a thunderstorm. In fact, if you look at many videos of tornadoes, you’ll see large swaths of clear skies directly behind them. In any case, if you’re experiencing a major thunderstorm and everything suddenly goes quiet and very still, don’t assume the worst is over but instead that it’s still to come.

Where Is the Safest Place to Be During a Tornado?

Tornadoes are incredibly destructive and can tear down even a well-built home in a matter of moments. Staying inside is favorable to being outside during a tornado, of course, but if you’re on the ground floor or higher, you could still be in big trouble. That’s why your basement is the best place to be during a tornado. Even better, an area of your basement with no windows and possibly in-ground pipes that you can strap yourself to as the tornado passes.

Many homes in America’s “tornado alley” have storm cellars just for tornadoes, which are very safe during a major storm. If neither a cellar nor a basement is available, getting under something very heavy in your home, like a large desk, is recommended. If you’re in your car as a tornado is approaching parking it under an overpass or letting it roll into a ditch are both good ideas.

Image Credit: yasioo, Pixabay

Are Brick Houses the Safest in a Tornado?

If you can say one thing about staying safe during a tornado or other violent storm, it’s this; the best place to be is a brick house. In fact, hundreds of years ago, when most homes in the US were made of brick, fewer were completely destroyed during a tornado. Hurricanes do less damage to a brick house, also. All you need to do after a tornado is watch your local news, and you’ll see; brick houses are mostly left standing while wood houses are destroyed.

One caveat is that you need a traditionally built brick home to have a better chance of it surviving a tornado. It must be built with full mortar joints and wall ties since they offer the most resistance to the driving rain and strong winds that accompany most tornadoes. If your home has a brick facade but uses traditional wooden walls underneath, its durability will probably still be lacking if a tornado strikes.

Do Tornadoes Have a Particular Smell?

Tim Samaras, a tornado chaser, stated that there was a telltale smell in the air before some tornadoes touched down. Samaras, who sadly died while chasing the tornado that hit El Reno, OK, on May 31, 2013, said that the air before and after a tornado strike typically smelled like grass that had been freshly mowed and also smelled similar to farmland that a farmer had recently plowed.

Samaras also mentioned that you could often smell natural gas from the burst pipes as a tornado passed by but noted that, to smell that, you needed to be dangerously close.

Can You Survive Being Picked Up by a Tornado?

The best way to survive a tornado is not to be picked up by one or struck by flying debris. Regrettably, if you were to get picked up by a passing tornado, the chance of your survival would be very low, if at all.

If a piece of flying debris doesn’t kill you, landing on the ground after being tossed high into the air probably would. In other words, if you see, hear, or are warned that a tornado is approaching, don’t wait around; instead, seek a safe place to hide as quickly as possible.

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Final Thoughts

Although they don’t often make a lot of noise, at least from far away, experts say that you can hear a tornado coming from 1.5 to 4 miles away (give or take a few hundred feet). When you consider that tornadoes can travel from 10 to 20 miles per hour (mph), that doesn’t give you much time to seek shelter. When you do, a basement or cellar is your best choice.

It’s highly recommended that you get a storm-tracking app with alerts on your phone if you live in a tornado-prone part of the world. It also makes sense to have an escape plan and practice it with your family. Whatever your particular case might be, if you find yourself with a tornado bearing down on your location, we hope the information provided today will go far toward helping you stay safe and sound.

Featured Image Credit: pixels1, Pixabay


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