Looking at pictures of tornado damage from the ground is one thing, but looking at the path of devastation from space quickly puts it into perspective. Strong, long-track tornadoes often leave long scars on the earth's surface that are easily visible from space.
The tornado outbreak across portions of the southern United States earlier this week produced at least two EF-4 tornadoes and four EF-3s. The highest ranking on the Enhanced Fujita Scale — which estimates the wind speed in a tornado based on the damage it produces — is an EF-5, which is assigned when a tornado estimated to have winds in excess of 200 MPH.
Here's the clearly visible path of the Louisville, Mississippi tornado last Monday, which was rated an EF-4 by survey crews. The tornado was so strong that it threw a door more than 30 miles before it fell on the campus of Mississippi State University in Starkville.
The 30+ mile path of the EF-4 tornado that tore through central Arkansas and devastated the towns of Mayflower and Vilonia is also visible from space.
The worst tornado to strike the United States since the 1930s struck Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011, killing over 100 people and nearly wiping out the entire southern half of the town with winds in excess of 200 MPH. Its path was relatively short, but the path it cut through the southwestern Missouri town was apparent on satellite imagery.
The April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak across the Deep South is still seared into the memories of most southerners, especially those who live in Alabama. The outbreak was the most prolific in recorded history, producing 358 tornadoes in the four days it took the weather system to move across the country.
Here are some of the tornado tracks over Alabama that were easily spotted by satellites a few days after that terrible April afternoon.
It usually takes a year or two of plant growth and building construction to "remove" the tornado tracks from the landscape, but they're still visible in more populated areas.
In this aerial photograph taken in October 2013 used in Google Earth, you can still see the tornado track left by the EF-5 tornado that swept through Moore, Oklahoma five months earlier in May 2013.
The track left behind by the Joplin tornado is barely distinguishable two-and-a-half years later when this aerial photograph was taken in January 2014. All of the damage has been cleared and removed, leaving open lots, dead grass, and new roofs in what remains of the tornado's track.
[Images via AP / MODIS x4 / Google Earth x2]