Typhoon Soudelor hit Taiwan this weekend with winds equivalent to those seen in a category three hurricane, causing immense damage and killing more than 20 people. Despite its power and destruction as a typhoon, Soudelor will be remembered for giving us one of the most dramatic tornado videos ever released.
Soudelor spun up at least one tornado (and probably several more) as it came ashore this weekend in Taiwan, located a few dozen miles off the southeast coast of China. This isn’t too unusual since tropical cyclones commonly produce tornadoes as they make landfall, but this one is a unique case because the entire event unfolded in front of a vehicle’s dashcam.
You’ve probably seen the footage on your favorite website by now, and if you haven’t, everyone who’s anyone is going to play it to death because it really is a mesmerizing (if not terrifying) video. However, even among many diehard weather enthusiasts, the point to be made with this video will get buried or even go without mention in the hyperbolic virality: this video is an incredible visualization of how powerful even a “weak” tornado can be.
Here in the United States, we use the Enhanced Fujita Scale to estimate the strength of a tornado based on how much damage it produces. An EF-0 is the bottom of the scale—packing estimated winds between 65 and 85 MPH—while an EF-5 is the ground-scouring monster with winds that top 200 MPH.
The overwhelming majority of tornadoes that occur in the United States and around the world are rated low on the scale. Between 1950 and 2014, the United States saw 59,945 documented tornadoes—79% of those tornadoes (47,360) were rated EF-0 or EF-1 (or F0/F1 on the old scale), and more than half of those weaker twisters (27,303) were assigned the lowest rating on the scale.
When you watch that video of the tornado in Taiwan, keep in mind that the twister is probably a solid EF-1 when it passed the vehicle with the dashcam. It uprooted trees along the side of the road, tossed loose building debris through the air, rattled (and briefly lifted) vehicles as it passed directly over them, and the combination of flying debris and strong winds launched a pedestrian into the road. EF-1 tornadoes are relatively common on our side of the world. Heck, one touched down last week and caused extensive damage to a Walmart in Troy, Alabama.
One of the biggest challenges meteorologists and communicators face when talking about tornadoes is that so many people shrug their shoulders at anything less than those wedges that can scour the pavement from the ground and wipe a house clean from the foundation, leaving behind nothing but some pipes and screws. It’s hard to get people to accept that it doesn’t take a large or relatively strong tornado to cause significant amounts of damage and injury. The person sitting in the street in the video is clearly injured and downright lucky he or she is alive, and the results for everyone involved would have been disastrous if the vehicles were driving any faster or if the street had more traffic at that moment.
“Weak tornado” is a misnomer. It’s all relative. If your house is hit by an EF-1, most of the structure will still be there, it’ll just have fewer windows and a tree or two in the living room. If you ever hear that you’re under the threat for “weak, spin-up tornadoes,” as we so often like to call them, don’t let the term lull you into a false sense of security. All tornadoes are dangerous, and if anyone ever doubts that, show them the video of that “weak” tornado in Taiwan this weekend.