Difference between a Twister and a Tornado

We often hear the terms “tornado” and “twister” in the same context, so why is that? Are they the same thing? One thing we know for sure is that tornadoes and twisters are known to be destructive storms that can wreak havoc even on the most highly fortified towns and cities.


Twister vs Tornado
The making of a Tornado in Elie, Manitoba


When hearing the word “twister”, there is one thing that clearly comes to mind, and that is the “tornado”. Since the 1996 movie ‘Twister’, the name “twister” has become a more popular term for tornadoes. So basically, twisters are just tornadoes, and this term is used as a slang version of tornado,  because of how it acts. Come to think of it, technically a tornado is a rapidly twisting vortex of air.

Also known as cyclones, twisters and tornadoes consist of a violently rotating column of air that forms from the base of a cloud and descends down to the ground. It is also usually associated with a thunderstorm, which unfortunately for us, adds to the damage it can inflict.


A tornado, as you may already know, is a destructive storm with a violently rotating column of air. While tornadoes are spotted in most parts of the world, they are said to be more frequent along the continental plains of the U.S.  For a tornado to be called a tornado, the wind speed must reach at least 40 mph (64 km/h).  While this speed may seem relatively weak, a tornado can reach speeds of up to a scary 200 mph (322 km/h).  In terms of their size, tornadoes are usually 250 feet (80 meters) across, but they can also stretch out for more than 2 miles (3 km) and can travel dozens of miles before dissipating.

Twister vs Tornado

So basically, twisters and tornadoes are the same thing. They are just two different terms to name the same natural phenomenon, which is a strong column of rotating air. So that leaves us with the more important question, “How do we know if a tornado is forming and how dangerous can they be?”

Unfortunately, tornadoes are known to form instantly within minutes, and so and warnings may only be issued if a tornado has formed. This is just one of the factors that make a twister or a tornado terrifying. While some tornadoes last only minutes, some have been known to last longer than an hour.

Life Cycle of Twisters and Tornadoes

  • Supercell – Tornadoes are usually formed under a class of thunderstorms, the supercells which contain the mesocyclone (a vortex of air within a storm).
  • Formation – Just below the cloud base, the lowering mesocyclone takes in cool, moist air from the downdraft region of the storm. With the convergence of warm air in the updraft and cool air from the downdraft, a rotating wall of cloud is formed and will eventually pull the mesocyclone down in the form of a condensed funnel.
  • Maturity – The stage where the tornado is still growing can last a few minutes to more than an hour. This is the stage in which a tornado often causes critical damage.
  • Dissipation- The tornado’s air supply is choked in this stage and will eventually weaken, becoming thin and ropelike. This stage lasts no more than a few minutes.

Here are the Potential Damages of a Tornado using the Enhanced Fujita Scale

EF0 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 0) Minor or no damage (May cause damage to gutters and roofs; branches may break)
EF1 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 1) Moderate damage (Roofs severely stripped; heavy damage to doors and windows; mobile homes overturned/damaged)
EF2 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 2) Considerable damage (Roofs torn off well-constructed houses; mobile homes completely destroyed; large trees uprooted; cars lifted off ground)
EF3 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 3) Severe damage (Well-constructed houses destroyed; considerable damage on large buildings; trains overturned; heavy cars lifted off  ground; heavy structures may be badly damaged)
EF4 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 4) Extreme damage (Well-constructed houses and whole frame houses completely leveled; cars are thrown and small missiles generated)
EF5 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 5) Total Destruction of Buildings (steel-reinforced concrete structures are heavily damaged; tall structures collapse; cars, trucks and even train cars can be thrown 1 mile (1.6 km))

Interesting Fact: There is geographically unique area nicknamed ‘Tornado Alley’ where the majority of  tornadoes occur.


Here is a more technical video explaining how tornadoes are formed.