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The eye of the storm


Here’s the latest instalment in our series introducing the science associated with some of the exciting new interactives in the soon-to-open Tūhura Otago Community Trust Science Centre. Living Environments Communicator Eden Gray explains the inner workings of tornadoes.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were swept up into the eye of a tornado?

The saying ‘the eye of the storm’ refers to the supposed ‘calm’ that can be found in the centre of a chaotic tornado. But if we were to find ourselves there, would it really be as relaxing as this would have us believe?

According to the National Severe Storms Lab, it’s likely that the centre of a tornado is mostly calm, with some downward pulling motion. However, because tools for determining wind speed can’t survive in a tornado long enough, we aren’t able to know with certainty.

Tornadoes are huge vertical columns of swirling wind that form most commonly alongside thunderstorms. This is because they require the same conditions: warm moisture close to the Earth’s surface, and colder air above. During a thunderstorm, if winds high in the atmosphere are travelling faster than winds closer to the ground, a rotating tunnel of air is created between them, which is called a supercell thunderstorm. As this air tunnel forms, it spins faster and faster, while being pulled upwards into the thunderstorm. At the same time, the rain coming from the storm above pushes this huge rotating column downwards to the ground. When it touches the ground, it is considered to be a tornado.

Meteorologists, who study weather patterns, classify tornadoes based on their intensity, or strength. Lower intensity tornadoes can reach speeds of up to 137 km/h, with high intensity tornadoes reaching incredible speeds of over 320 km/h!  

Coming soon to our new science centre is an interactive that will allow visitors to come eye-to-eye with a miniature tornado. Although our tornado won’t be large enough to swallow anyone whole, we’re certain that it will sweep our visitors off their feet, and ‘into the eye of the storm’.