Twister is arguably the most popular weather movie ever made, and it sparked an interest in meteorology in both kids and adults alike. While the movie is incredibly entertaining, it's also on some pretty solid ground when it comes to the science. Just how much did the creators of Twister get right and wrong?
The upcoming storm chasing thriller Into the Storm has the potential to be this generation's Twister, but it remains to be seen if it will have anywhere near as much of an impact on the weather world as the original did back in 1996. In anticipation of the movie's release on August 8, let's take a look at Into The Storm's predecessor to see how high Twister set the bar.
What They Got Wrong
- At the beginning of the movie — y'know, when Jo's (Helen Hunt) dad gets sucked out of the storm cellar — her dad says "c'mon, let's go, the TV said it could be an F5." The problem is that this is set in June 1969; the Fujita Scale wasn't developed until 1971.
- The television set in the first scene showed Gary England warning residents with weather radar that a tornado was on its way. The first time weather radar was used on television during a tornado outbreak wasn't until 1973. The first person to use it was, of course, Gary England.
- "It's goin' green." A green sky doesn't always mean that there's a tornado on its way. A green sky happens when light scatters through the enormous amount of hail and water in a storm. It's sort of like a deep lake taking on a greenish tint. The reason tornadoes are associated with green skies is because storms strong enough to support intense tornadoes also usually produce copious amounts of hail and rain.
- Tornadoes are not known to roar like a lion.
- Bill and Jo take cover under a bridge during the first tornado. This is never a good idea as bridges offer you no protection from a tornado.
- We can't know the strength of a tornado by looking at it, nor can meteorologists predict the strength of a tornado. Wind speeds are estimated based on the damage it produces, or on very rare occasions, when Doppler radar or instruments on the ground are able to directly measure it.
- When the tornado hit the drive-in movie theater, everyone ran to take shelter in the big hangar. Big, open rooms like hangars or gymnasiums are terrible protection from storms — as the characters found out — because they're not structurally sound enough to handle the wind and debris.
- The storms worked on "movie time," which is understandable. Tornado outbreaks don't usually start one day, last all night, and go straight into the next day without stopping. They explode during daytime heating and usually wane through the night, not starting up again until the following afternoon.
What They Got Right
- The satellite mentioned at the beginning of the movie — GOES 8 — was a real satellite that NOAA used from 1994 until 2004.
- DOROTHY, the beloved metal pods with little sensors inside meant to go up in the tornado to measure its behavior, was based off of the real-life TOTO project conducted by the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) back in the 1980s. They never got it to work.
- The "science vs. money" aspect of storm chasing does exist, though not on the dramatic scale seen in the movie (of course). There are some chasers in it for the science, and some in it for the money.
- Much of the technical talk ("the cap is breaking," "the wind shear is veering") is actually spot on, which is rare for a weather movie.
- All of the newscasts on background television sets were of Gary England, a renowned Oklahoma meteorologist.
- When the final, huge tornado suddenly shifted track and killed the storm chasers, it was a very similar scenario to what happened during the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado in 2013. The real-world multi-vortex tornado, a record 2.6 miles wide, dramatically grew in size and strength as it suddenly changed direction. It caught many highly experienced storm chasers off guard, killing three and injuring many more, including a crew from The Weather Channel.
- When Jo and Bill got caught inside the tornado, the center was clear except for a small rope in the middle. That is mostly true, though larger tornadoes usually have multiple vortices embedded within them. A research team chasing a tornado with a Doppler-on-Wheels in Dimmitt, Texas back on June 2, 1995 caught the above radar images of the tornado itself as it passed within a mile or so of their location. The clear "eye" of the tornado is clearly visible during the tornado's mature stage, shown by the top-left radar image.
Things That Creeped Me Out When I First Saw This Movie When I Was Five
- The TVs all going to static before the tornado hit the drive-in movie theater. I freaked out for years after that if our cable flickered during a storm.
- Along those lines, hearing wind chimes before a storm also still kinda creeps me out.
[Images via the movie Twister and an academic paper available on the AMS website]