History’s Biggest Tornadoes, the Facts and Damage Caused

A large, thin funnel tornado

When it comes to dangerous storms, tornadoes have the gnarliest reputation. That’s because they’re so unpredictable: unlike lumbering hurricanes, they appear suddenly and can change direction in the blink of an eye. That’s what makes their study so fascinating and so critical.

Some of the biggest and most devastating tornadoes throughout history have been studied intensely in the years since they touched down. Here are some interesting facts about the biggest tornadoes ever recorded.

Size Isn’t Everything

As many people will be quick to remind you, size alone is no indicator of potency. Even a small tornado can produce winds that fling cars and topple buildings. The best way to measure tornadoes is a topic of much debate: should wind speed be the main factor? Should a combination of size and devastation be taken into account? It’s all up in the air, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Multiple Vortex

Some of history’s most devastating twisters have been “multiple vortex” tornadoes. This is a term used by storm chasers to refer to tornadoes that are actually comprised of several smaller tornadoes, which can split off and cause damage on their own. If you thought one tornado was terrifying, wait until you’ve seen five circling a sixth, larger one.


Oklahoma is the “giant tornado capital of the world.” For instance, in 2013 a 2.6 mile wide tornado touched down in El Reno, easily topping the previous record for largest tornado by width. This is due, largely, to Oklahoma’s location near the center of Tornado Alley, the most tornado-prone place on Earth.

High Speed Dangers

As all storm enthusiasts know, the most dangerous thing about any tornado is simply the speed of the wind. The only reason tornadoes are even visible is due to the low pressure in the moving air condensing moisture and creating fast-moving “clouds”. This low pressure is likely part of the “engine” that propels the high wind speeds, resulting in the danger of tornadoes.

Some of the most devastating tornadoes ever recorded, like the EF-5 that touched down in Joplin, Missouri, can do some crazy things with wind speed. Hospital buildings have been warped to the point of needing to be demolished. Plastic straws have been accelerated to speeds that cause them to punch through sheet metal. Truly, the full force of an EF-5 tornado is terrifying to behold.

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Jeremy Liu
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Jeremy Liu

Jeremy Liu has always been fascinated by extreme weather—but he prefers to write about the world’s deadliest storms from the safety and comfort of his home office. He’s much less likely to get hit with a flying cow that way. (And yes, Jeremy’s favorite movie is Twister.)

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Jeremy Liu Written by Jeremy Liu