Have you ever wondered what a tornado sounds like? Maybe you’ve never heard one or perhaps you’ve been in a storm and wondered whether a particularly ominous sound was a tornado. A tornado makes a low-frequency continuous roar or rumble. This sound is similar to other, more-familiar phenomena. But, not all tornadoes sound alike and many are not audible at all.
Does a Tornado Sound Like a Train?
The sound of a tornado gets compared to the sound of a train. This refers to the continuous rumble of a locomotive on its tracks and (sometimes) the wail of its whistle. Not everyone knows what a train sounds like, plus tornadoes posed a threat before their invention. Depending on who you ask, a tornado sounds like:
- A train
- A roaring jet engine
- A waterfall
- The sound you hear if you stick your head out the window of a car on the highway
- Continuous rolling thunder
- A rumbling earthquake
- An enormous buzzing swarm of bees
- Crackling and hissing power lines
- A microburst from a thunderstorm
- A hurricane
Much of a tornado’s sound is in the infrasonic range, between 1 Hz and 10 Hz. Infrasound is not audible to humans, but some animals can perceive it and people may feel it. So, the sound of a tornado isn’t just its roaring, whining, and crackling, but also the subauditory physical sensation it causes.
Fun Fact: The tornado sounds in the movie Twister weren’t of a real tornado. They were a mixture of sounds from a box of chicken wire placed on top of a car that was rolled downhill and recordings of camel sounds with the pitch lowered.
How Far Away Can You Hear a Tornado?
Based on the analysis of data collected by Storm Track, the average distance at which a tornado becomes audible is 1.5 miles. The maximum distance is about 4 miles. The distance depends on multiple factors, including the size of the tornado, the nature of its interaction with the ground, and the shape of the terrain. So, for example, a tornado uprooting trees in a valley makes more sound than a tornado disturbing grass on a prairie.
Sound is not a reliable tornado warning. This is because most tornadoes are not audible. In the Storm Track study, only 14 out of 92 tornadoes produced sound. Powerful tornadoes are more likely to make sound than weak tornadoes, but some are silent.
The Sound of a Real Tornado
If you search YouTube, you’ll find lots of videos of tornadoes. However, most of the time people comment and you can’t hear the storm. Other “tornado sound” videos try to replicate the audio electronically.
Here’s a video clip of a real tornado. Keep in mind, not all tornadoes sound like this:
Infrasound Tornado Detection
While hearing a tornado doesn’t offer much warning, infrasonic detection not only identifies tornadoes at a significant distance, but also predicts their formation. Researchers at Colorado State University used infrasound at subaudible frequencies around 1 Hz to identify vortices. In some cases, infrasound detectors “heard” tornadoes as far as 60 miles (100 kilometers) away. In another study by Oklahoma State University Stillwater and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, researchers used infrasound to detect conditions favorable to tornado formation up to 2 hours before tornadogenesis.
How to Tell If There Is a Tornado
If listening for a tornado isn’t reliable and infrasound detection isn’t widespread, how do you know if there is a tornado?
Places where tornadoes are common sometimes have tornado sirens. Many tornado sirens are re-purposed air raid sirens from World War II. These sirens ululate for at least a couple of minutes, ideally early enough that residents have time to take cover. Tornado sirens are easy to hear when the weather is clear, but get lost in the sound of a strong thunderstorm. Some tornadoes sound much like the sound of a tornado siren in a storm.
Probably the best warning is a phone text alert. These alerts come from meteorologists with access to radar. There are also apps that show real-time radar, making it easy for an armchair meteorologist to tell when a storm is about to get serious.
If you don’t have access to technology, there are certain scenarios associated with tornadoes:
- The sky turns green and it may hail. Hail accompanies many tornadoes.
- A region of a thunderstorm produces near-constant lightning. This is one way to identify a likely tornado in the dark.
- A windy thunderstorm suddenly turns calm. The temperature may drop dramatically.
- You see a funnel dip down from a cloud.
- Abdullah, Abdul (April 1966). “The “Musical” Sound Emitted by a Tornado”. Mon. Wea. Rev. 94 (4): 213–20. doi:10.1175/1520-0493(1966)094<0213:TMSEBA>2.3.CO;2
- Bedard, A. J. (January 2005). “Low-Frequency Atmospheric Acoustic Energy Associated with Vortices Produced by Thunderstorms”. Mon. Wea. Rev. 133 (1): 241–63. doi:10.1175/MWR-2851.1. S
- Davidson, Keay (1996). Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of a Natural Disaster Movie. Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-00029-2.
- Elbing, B. R.; Petrin, C. E.; Van Den Broeke, M. S. (2018). “Infrasound Measurements From a Tornado in Oklahoma.” Proc. Mrgs. Acoust. 33: 045003 doi:10.1121/2.0001015
- Elbing, Brian R.; Petrin, Christopher (2018) “Monitoring Infrasound From a Tornado in Oklahoma.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 143: 1808. doi:10.1121/1.5035924
- Hoadley, David K. (March 31, 1983). “Tornado Sound Experiences“. Storm Track. 6 (3): 5–9.