Public Domain Tornado Images

NSSL Tornado Photos

Here are some tornado images which were scanned for SPC web use from the National Severe Storms Laboratory's storm intercept slide archive. Click on the photo or (nearest) town name to receive only the full-sized image.

NOTE: These photos were taken by participants during official, federally funded field research programs, and are in the public domain. They may be downloaded and freely distributed; however, proper credit ("Photo courtesy of NSSL") should be given when used. Brief explanations are provided also:

    Alfalfa OK, 22 May 1981, looking NNW. A "textbook" tornado extending from the wall cloud of a classic supercell, with a "clear slot" cutting through the cloud base around the near side of the wall cloud. The slot represents part of the occlusion downdraft, an arc of sinking air believed to contribute to tornado development in many cases. The tornado did damage rated at F2.

    Altus OK, 11 May 1982, looking NW. A wide, multiple-vortex tornado, with four or five vortices apparent to the left of the big one. This tornado hit Altus Air Force Base and produced F3 damage -- one of several observed by NSSL storm intercept teams within a few miles of Altus that day.

    Binger OK, 22 May 1981, looking SW. "Wedge" tornado nearly a mile wide. This violent tornado produced up to F4 damage, flattened cars before wrapping them around denuded trees, and flung cattle and vehicles for hundreds of yards. The same supercell had earlier spawned the Alfalfa tornado above. Doppler radar scans of this storm were intensively studied in the 1980s.

    Cordell OK, 22 May 1981, looking N. A gust front from the parent thunderstorm hit the bottom part of the tornado vortex and moved it aside to the right. This tornado -- the subject of some classic film footage used in many tornado videos and documentaries -- produced F1 damage earlier in its lifespan and dissipated shortly after this picture was snapped.

    El Reno OK, 30 April 1978, looking W. This photo was shot from the back of a storm intercept vehicle while fleeing a tornado which developed almost directly overhead. In other words, the chasers became the chased. The tornado touched down on a small house a few hundred feet away, pulling its roof off and scattering all manner of boards, shingles and other debris through the air. The next tornado from the same supercell is shown below.

    El Reno OK, 30 April 1978, looking NE. Rope-shaped tornado with the main precipitation core of the supercell to the left of the photo. Very little precipitation was wrapping around the west side of the mesocyclone below cloud base, affording a sharp view from that direction. Foreground cattle apparently were unimpressed. The tornado did F2 damage on a farm.

    Erick OK, 25 April 1989, looking S. There is no condensation funnel formed from water vapor; instead, the inner core of the tornado above ground level is outlined by a sheath of fine dust. The tornado hit only grass and dirt -- nothing which could indicate its true strength; therefore, it was rated F0. This was the only tornado recorded in the state of Oklahoma during three consecutive Aprils -- 1987, 1988 and 1989; and it was barely inside the Texas border.

    Kingsmill TX, 14 May 1977, looking WNW. The candy-striped appearance came from the tornado's passing across alternating areas of sun and shadow caused by broken clouds to its upper left. This tornado was in its dying stages, losing its circulation at ground level; and the entire visible funnel would vanish within seconds.

    Lakeview TX, 19 Apr 1977, looking SW. Tornado developed separately from a very low, rapidly rotating wall cloud at right rear -- to its west. This occurred over the relatively dry, sandy and sparesly developed valley of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, and consequently did little damage.

    Mayfield OK, 16 May 1977, looking N. Large tornado which produced F2 damage to homes, and also destroyed two trailers and a few barns. The white streak at upper left is a falling hailstone. This was part of one of the most active storm intercept weeks ever seen in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle -- the legendary "Seven Days of May" in 1977.

    Quail TX, 16 May 1977, looking N. This tornado -- here shown in its final "rope" stage -- produced F3 damage earlier in the town of Quail, where it destroyed a school, cafeteria, homemaking cottage, three houses, two school buses and eight other vehicles. The tornado dangles from the extreme southwest edge of a cyclic (multiple mesocyclone-producing) supercell which would next spawn a very large tornado near Shamrock TX.

    Roff OK, 2 May 1984, looking NW. Another "rope" tornado in its dissipating stage. The dense gray area behind the tornado is composed of shafts of heavy rain and hail. Diligent spotting of rain-wrapped mesocyclones is important, because their tornadoes are often very hard to visually distinguish from the precipitation itself. The Roff tornado produced F2 damage.

    Seymour TX , 10 April 1979, looking NW. Though massive and well-organized, the tornado crossed largely open countryside, hitting flimsy outbuildings, vegetation and utility poles. It snapped and uprooted mesquite trees, which are deep-rooted and notoriously tough, and was rated F2 by NSSL survey teams. The next tornado from this supercell was even larger and would devastate Wichita Falls within an hour.

    Shamrock TX, 16 May 1977, looking N from Interstate 40. This very large "wedge" tornado did up to F3 damage as it churned along for about 15 miles across the extreme eastern Texas Panhandle, sparing the bulk of the town and only striking a few structures. Observers reported extremely rapid motion in the tornado, comparable to those which inflict more violent damage.

    Sweetwater OK, 16 May 1977, looking NE. The Mayfield OK tornado (described farther up this page) is shown at left later in its lifespan, near Sweetwater. A separate funnel cloud hangs low several miles to its SSW (right), beneath the supercell's flanking line. Although no known record of damage exists in association with this funnel, it is possible that the circulation extended to the ground.

    Tipton OK, 20 May 1977, looking N. The F3 Tipton tornado was a massive vortex wrapped in rain, part of an HP (heavy precipitation) supercell updraft. Occasionally, one edge of the condensation funnel would become visible; but most of the time, it was enshrouded in a furiously rotating veil of rain curtains. Luckily, the photographer caught a power flash in the tornado which helped to reveal its whereabouts within the murk.

    Union City OK , 24 May 1973, looking NW. Wide angle view of a classic supercell updraft base, wall cloud and tornado, in its early lifespan. This violent tornado did F4 damage. Intercept teams from NSSL positioned themselves all around the mesocyclone and documented the tornado on film, while beams from the Norman research Doppler radar passed overhead, in the most intensive scientific observation of a tornado conducted to that time.

    Union City OK , 24 May 1973, looking NW. Zoom view during the tornado's mature phase, showing a well-developed debris fan. The main precipitation area is to the right and middle rear; and the south edge of the well-developed wall cloud can be seen at extreme left. Films of this stage show scud tags near cloud base moving rapidly from left to right as the circulation approached town. Many tornadoes veer leftward in their fading moments as their parent circulations become deeply occluded. This one, however, made a broadly curving right turn (southeastward) along with the entire thunderstorm.

    Waurika OK, 30 May 1976, looking W. This photo was taken within a few seconds of the one below, and from the opposite direction (along the same roadway). Here, much of the sunlight is absorbed by tens of thousands of feet of thunderstorm cloud material, leaving the tornado "backlit," or silhouetted, by the light to the west.

    Waurika OK, 30 May 1976, looking E. This is the same tornado as in the previous picture, at almost the same instant, from about the same distance, in nearly the opposite direction. It appears front-lit by filtered (refracted) sunlight streaming in from the west (behind the photographer). Fuzzy gray areas beneath the cloud base at right are precipitation curtains wrapping southward around the west edge of the mesocyclone -- the same process which forms a hook echo on radar displays.

There are other public-domain tornado pictures from the NSSL archive online at the NOAA tornado photo library. [The "high-resolution" versions are really big files and may take a long time to download on a modem.]

Imagery courtesy of the National Severe Storms Lab, catalogued and scanned by Roger Edwards.

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