The World’s Deadliest Tornadoes

By: Christopher C. Burt , 11:11 PM GMT on April 06, 2011

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The World’s Deadliest Tornadoes

The tornado ‘season’ got off to a roaring start this April when a powerful line of storms moving across the eastern half of the U.S. on April 4-5 produced as many as 20 tornadoes and an unprecedented 1300 severe storm warnings. Unfortunately, eight people died as a result. It could, however, been much worse.

I thought this might be a good time to look back at what the deadliest tornadoes on record have been.

The United States and Canada are the only countries in the world to have verified reports of the most violent tornadoes: those with a classification of F-5 or EF-5 (wind speeds estimated to be in excess of 260mph/417kph and measured as high as 318mph/512kph on the old Fujita Scale or over 200mph/320kph on the new Enhanced Fujita scale). See this link for details about the Fujita and Enhanced Fujita Scales and the differences between the two.

Since 1900 there have only been a total of 97 such storms, all but one in the United States. In all but 10 cases these storms resulted in fatalities. This table is from my book Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book.



The table above covers just those tornadoes rated as F-5’s on the former Fujita Scale. The following EF-5 tornadoes have since occurred (the EF scale went into effect on February 1, 2007; there were no F-5 or EF-5 tornadoes reported between the May, 1999 event in Oklahoma and the May 2007 event in Greensburg, Kansas):

May 4, 2007: Kansas 11 killed
June 22, 2007: Manitoba, Canada 0 killed
May 25, 2008: Iowa 9 killed

The reason the heart of the North American continent bears the brunt of these most powerful of twisters lies with its unique topography. Only in North America does a solid land mass stretch from the sub-tropics to the arctic with no mountain barriers to inhibit the mixture of air masses originating from these two regions.

THE DEADLIEST SINGLE TORNADOES AND TORNADO OUTBREAKS IN U.S. HISTORY

Most of you probably already know that the ‘single’ deadliest tornado in U.S. history was the famous ‘Tri-state’ twister of March 25, 1925 when 695 died in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana when a F-5 mile-wide monster carved a course some 219 miles through the three states. However, modern research suggests that this may well have been a series (or at least two) tornadoes developing from a single super cell traversing the area. Eight other violent (F-2 or stronger) tornadoes killed an additional 52 people in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky over the course of the day bringing the total killed to 747 and making this also the deadliest tornado outbreak in American history.



Griffin, Indiana lies devastated following the passage of the Tri-state tornado on March 18, 1925. 71 people perished in the vicinity of Griffin. Photo from the National Archives.

The 2nd deadliest single tornado was that which struck Natchez, Mississippi on May 7, 1840 killing 317, many of the fatalities being along the town’s waterfront when the twister traversed the Mississippi River. The 2nd deadliest tornado outbreak was that of April 5-6, 1936 when 454 were killed across the Southeast from Arkansas to South Carolina. Tupelo, Mississippi was the worst affected where 216 were killed by a tornado on March 5th and Gainesville, Georgia where 203 lost their lives the following day on March 6, 1936.

Below are tables listing the 20 deadliest U.S. tornado outbreaks and 20 deadliest single tornadoes in U.S. history. Some of these figures are, to some degree, disputable and simply represent the best available information to date:





Tables reproduced from ‘Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book. Note that on the ‘deadliest single tornadoes’ table No. 4 and No.5 positions are transposed. Sorry, but hard to fix at the moment.



A F-5 tornado completely swept away the town of Glazier, Texas on April 9, 1947. The same tornado killed 181 in Woodward, Oklahoma (see table above) and so ranks as the 6th deadliest tornado in U.S. history. Glazier was never rebuilt. Photo courtesy of the ‘Amarillo Globe-News’.

CANADA



Environment Canada has concluded that the tornado that formed near Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007 was of EF-5 strength making it the only such storm of this violent nature to occur outside of the United States. Canada’s deadliest tornado event was that of June 30, 1912 when 28 were killed in the city of Regina, Saskatchewan. More recently, 27 died in and around Edmonton, Alberta on July 31, 1987 when a F-4 slammed the city.



The second deadliest tornado in Canadian history bears down on Edmonton, Alberta on July 31, 1987. Twenty-seven lives were lost. Photo by Robert Carlton, University of Alberta.

AROUND THE WORLD



Other regions of the world that also experience very violent tornadoes (EF2-4 strength) fairly regularly (but to date no EF-5s) include the following:

BANGLADESH

Bangladesh has suffered the deadliest tornadoes on record and several of these have been estimated to be in the F-4 category of strength. The reason Bangladesh receives violent tornadoes is because during the beginning of the wet monsoon season (usually April and May) cold dry air spilling south over the Himalayan massif encounters deep tropical moisture streaming north from the Bay of Bengal. The ensuing violent thunderstorms produce not only tornadoes but also some of the largest hail ever observed (the heaviest single hailstone ever measured on earth weighed in at 2.25 pounds on April 14, 1986 during a storm in the Gopalanj District—unfortunately, the diameter of the stone was not noted).



A synoptic chart illustrating a day a tornado formed in Bangladesh during the spring of 2003.

The deadliest tornado in Bangladesh, and thus world, history (at least in modern records) was that which occurred on April 26, 1989. At least 1,300 deaths were reported from flattened villages in a region just north of the city of Dacca. On May 13, 1995 another 700 lives were lost in the city of Tangail as the result of a violent tornado. Four other tornado events have killed 500 or more people in Bangladesh since 1964 (on April 11, 1964, April 14, 1969, April 17, 1973, and April 1, 1977). In fact, at least 6,500 people have died from tornadoes in Bangladesh in the past 50 years. This list provides more details about these events.

ARGENTINA

Although tornadoes are relatively rare in South America Argentina has recorded some violent twisters that may have reached the F3-4 level of intensity as was the case on January 10, 1973 when 50-70 people were killed in the town of San Justo, Santa Fe State northwest of Buenos Aires.

RUSSIA

Tornado expert Thomas Grazulis has speculated that Russia might receive the largest absolute number of tornadoes each year, following the United States, due to its vast size and “potential for small tornadoes”. Violent tornadoes, however, have been known to occur as was the case on June 9, 1984 when as many as 400 people were reported killed during an outbreak in a region 150-200 miles north of Moscow.

WESTERN EUROPE

Violent tornadoes are extremely rare anywhere in Western Europe although many weak ones occur every year. The deadliest tornado in Western Europe’s history struck three textile and paper mills near Monville, France on August 19, 1845 killing at least 70 people. Sketchy reports of waterspouts coming ashore in the Mediterranean claim fatalities of 500 in Sicily in December 1851 and 600 killed in the Grand Harbour at Valetta, Malta on September 2, 1551. There seems to be few details concerning these events and uncertainty as to the actual dates of occurrence.

SOUTH AFRICA

The only country in Africa to occasionally report a violent tornado is South Africa where powerful thunderstorms often erupt during the summer months of November through February. The deadliest tornado outbreak in the nation’s history was that of November 30-December 2, 1952 when 31 people were killed in the towns of Albertynesville and Paynesville near Johannesburg.

JAPAN

In Japan about 20 tornadoes, or tatsumaki (dragon whirls), are reported annually. These are most often associated with super cell thunderstorms that develop along the Pacific Coastline during the summer months. Weaker winter tornadoes (similar to those that affect the U.S. West Coast during winter storms) are also known to form. However, the strongest tornado in Japanese history was one of these winter ones which hit the coastal city of Mobara (20 miles southeast of Tokyo) on December 1, 1990. It was rated as a F-4 and destroyed over 1000 buildings and injured 100 people. There were no fatalities. The deadliest tornado in modern Japanese records killed 16 at an elementary school in Miyazaki city on September 26, 1881.

AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND

Australia reports about 20-25 tornadoes a year, the same number as New Zealand, and in both cases they are usually relatively weak. Occasionally they become strong enough to warrant an EF-3 rating. New Zealand’s deadliest tornado was that which struck the towns of Frankton and Hamilton in August 1948 killing three and injuring dozens. It was rated as a F-2 in intensity.

Australia’s deadliest twister was that of August 14, 1971 when three were killed at Kin Kin (a small community between Gympie and Noosa) in southern Queensland.



The Bucca, Queensland tornado of November 29,1992. The only F4 tornado so far officially reported in Australia (photo courtesy of “Emergency Management Australia”).

SUMMARY

The Top Ten Deadliest Tornado Outbreaks on Record in the World Since 1900

1. 1,300 fatalities in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989
2. 747 fatalities in the USA on March 18, 1925
3. 700 fatalities in Bangladesh on May 13, 1996
4. 681 fatalities in Bangladesh on April 17, 1973
5. 660 fatalities in Bangladesh on April 14, 1969
6. 500 fatalities in Bangladesh on April 4, 1964
7. 500 fatalities in Bangladesh on April 1, 1977
8. 454 fatalities in USA on April 5-6, 1936
9. 400 fatalities in Russia on June 9, 1984
10. 330 fatalities in USA on March 21-22, 1932

Deadliest Tornado Outbreaks on Record by Continent Since 1900

ASIA
1,300 fatalities in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989

NORTH AMERICA
747 fatalities in the USA on March 18, 1925

EUROPE
400 fatalities in Russia on June 9, 1984

SOUTH AMERICA
70 fatalities in Argentina on January 10, 1973

AUSTRALIA
3 fatalities on August 14, 1971

OCEANIA
3 fatalities in New Zealand on August 25, 1948


REFERENCE: The single best reference work about tornadoes and tornado history is Thomas P. Grazulis’s masterpiece Significant Tornadoes: 1680-1991. A supplement to this was published bringing the data up to 1995. Unfortunately, no further editions have been published to cover the past 16 years although his web site has done so.

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16. TomTaylor
10:18 PM GMT on May 23, 2011
Quoting GetingDrilled:
I must buy your book. Thanks for all of this

I'd definitely recommend this book if you are at all fascinated by weather records or stories. His book is a perfect reference guide for nearly all records that are weather related. Additionally, it has many interesting stories and commentaries on the records themselves.

I've read through it a couple of times myself out of pure fascination and have also used it countless times for reference when I'm wondering about a record.
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4357
15. GetingDrilled
5:37 PM GMT on May 23, 2011
I must buy your book. Thanks for all of this
Member Since: March 11, 2003 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
14. Neapolitan
2:38 PM GMT on May 23, 2011
As always, excellent and informative, Chris. And your response to comment #10 exactly parallels my own thoughts on the matter. I've looked at many of the damage photos from some of the storms between 1950 and the early 1970s that were classified retroactively once the Fujita scale was founded, and I find it difficult to conceive how some of the storms were rated as highly as they were. (In fact, one of my complaints--for lack of a better word--following last month's super outbreak is that the 1974 Super Outbreak has such an odd distribution of strengths that one wonders just how accurate the assessments were.)
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13505
13. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
5:47 AM GMT on April 13, 2011
Quoting InconceivableF6:
I have a question? Why has the new revised EF tornado rating scale not include wind speeds of over 200mph anymore? The old Fujita Scale I think categorized an F5 with winds up to 316mph. Is this because as more research was done, scientists found out that winds in excess of 200mph (the current EF5 today) are highly unlikely with tornadoes?


Actually, the EF-5 designation IS for wind speeds of 200mph or greater and damage consistent with such winds (see the link I provided at the beginning of my blog). They no longer, however, use the 316mph as the upper limit (which on the old scale existed because a wind of 316mph was measured during a tornado using debris motion video). So now there is no upper limit to the potential wind speeds incurred by EF-5 tornadoes (hence no such thing as an EF-6 tornado).
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 297 Comments: 279
11. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
12:09 AM GMT on April 12, 2011
Quoting jtreske:
Mr. Burt,

Great article. I was wondering why F5s have seemed to have disappeared this last decade. I was told once that tornadoes tend to not affect major urban areas due to the heat island effect. Does the rapid development of the U.S. close off some of these weather patterns that might typically generate major tornadoes?

I look forward to your response.


You have two very interesting questions here. The first (why so few F-5 tornadoes in the 2000-2009 decade) is very hard to answer. There were only three F-5s (and only 2 in the USA) during this period, tied for the fewest with the 1980s. One reason may be that the NWS (National Weather Service) is more selective so far as making a F-5 determination. It could be that in the pre-NEXRAD radar era the tornado intensities were exaggerated especially since building codes have improved (or rather become more strict) and since it is damage (not actual wind measurements) that determine the intensity rating, fewer structures are seeing the kind of destruction that occurred in the past.

Your second question "why F-5s don't seem to strike major cities" is just a matter of good luck so far. In fact F-5s have struck big cities before (Oklahoma City in May 1999 comes to mind) but since even monster tornadoes are relatively small (at worst one mile or so in diameter) and their paths relatively short (usually less than 20 miles) and the USA is a very large country and mostly still unurbanized, the odds are against a rare F-5 making a direct hit on a major city. The heat island effect has nothing to do with this and, in fact, should make it even more likely (although only in a very minor way) that tornadoes should strike. Research has shown that perhaps the urban heat island has actually contributed to more thunderstorm activity in the vicinity of urban areas as a result of this increased heat in the atmosphere.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 297 Comments: 279
10. jtreske
7:33 PM GMT on April 11, 2011
Mr. Burt,

Great article. I was wondering why F5s have seemed to have disappeared this last decade. I was told once that tornadoes tend to not affect major urban areas due to the heat island effect. Does the rapid development of the U.S. close off some of these weather patterns that might typically generate major tornadoes?

I look forward to your response.
Member Since: April 11, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
9. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
6:17 PM GMT on April 11, 2011
Quoting NYRocks:
Great topic.
I see only the coastal areas in China are covered on the map. Does China receive many Tornadoes?


Historical tornado records for China are sketchy since until the late 1980s natural disasters were considered state secrets (and prior to 1950 were largely unreported). Since then there has been an average of about one multiple-fatality tornado a year, the deadliest being on or around July 17, 1996 (the date it was published in the media) when 25 were killed in eastern Jiangsu Province.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 297 Comments: 279
8. earln7
4:37 PM GMT on April 11, 2011
The most extreme tornado in recorded history was the Tri-State Tornado, which roared through parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. It was likely an F5, though tornadoes were not ranked on any scale in that era. It holds records for longest path length (219 miles, 352 km), longest duration (about 3.5 hours), and fastest forward speed for a significant tornado (73 mph, 117 km/h) anywhere on earth.
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Member Since: April 11, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
7. NYRocks
10:47 AM GMT on April 11, 2011
Great topic.
I see only the coastal areas in China are covered on the map. Does China receive many Tornadoes?
Member Since: April 11, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
6. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
4:37 AM GMT on April 11, 2011
Quoting raingarden:
Has a tornado ever hit downtown Madison?


No tornado has directly hit Madison in its history. The closest call was a F-3 twister that struck Stoughton, Wisconsin just five miles southeast of the capital on August 18, 2005. One fatality was reported in Stoughton as a result of the storm.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 297 Comments: 279
5. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
4:34 AM GMT on April 11, 2011
Quoting luvtornadoes:
Do you know what the details are of a large tornado that hit Barneveld Wi 10-15 years ago? thanks!


The most violent tornado in modern records for Wisconsin devastated Barneveld, Wisconsin around midnight on June 7, 1984. This F-5 rated twister killed 9 in the small town and destroyed or damaged 90% of the structures. It is one of only two F-5 tornadoes on record in the state (the other being on July 18, 1996).

The Barneveld storm was so powerful that asphalt was sucked off the streets of the town. In Madison, the state capital, the lightning was strobe-like and university students danced in the disco-like effect that lit up the late night sky (I was one of them!) unaware that a tragedy was unfolding just 30 miles to the west.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 297 Comments: 279
4. raingarden
12:30 AM GMT on April 11, 2011
Has a tornado ever hit downtown Madison?
Member Since: April 10, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 2
3. luvtornadoes
1:28 PM GMT on April 10, 2011
Do you know what the details are of a large tornado that hit Barneveld Wi 10-15 years ago? thanks!
Member Since: April 10, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
2. juslivn
10:27 PM GMT on April 07, 2011
Very interesting and fascinating. Thanks!
Member Since: August 20, 2009 Posts: 85 Comments: 10065
1. PSLFLCaneVet
7:24 PM GMT on April 07, 2011



Thank you! A very informative piece. Kudos. :)
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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.