When people ask, “what made you want to become a meteorologist?” I have a simple one-word answer for them: TWISTER.
I couldn’t get enough of it as I grew up in the same tornado alley featured in the movie. As a kid, I wore out the VHS from repeated viewings- soaking in as much meteorological knowledge in its two-hour runtime!
I watch it and other weather disaster films today for their entertainment value and not much else. Join me as I fact check weather depictions in movies: from inescapable cold to sharknados in this week’s moment of science!
An absolute classic with some great weather jargon, that sometimes hits the mark and other times completely misses it. This clip, for example, in which a character labels a tornado as an F-5 from looking at it.
Chasers and meteorologists don’t and can not determine the strength of a tornado by looking at it. The National Weather Service assess the damage after the storm has come and gone, and then assigns the EF scale to it. But calling it an F-5 from the ground, not happening.
On that same note: While green skies do occur during severe weather- it indicates hail, not tornadoes as light refracts off the large ice stones at the core of the storm.
Another glaring mistake is that you should never take cover under a bridge during a tornado as they did at the very beginning of the movie! The bridge overhead acts as a wind tunnel- increasing the already strong wind. A meteorologist would know that- and certainly won’t place themselves in a situation where that was the only option.
Finally, flying objects. Trucks, houses, cows- these are possible and a real danger as extremely violent tornadoes can throw large objects hundreds to thousands of feet away from the storm. But whatever is flying through the air won’t be in good shape- rather a bunch of debris.
Speaking of which…
The Wizard of Oz
Dorthy’s family made the right choice in heading to the cellar for shelter, but not for the fear of the house flying away to somewhere over the rainbow. Tornadoes can completely wipe a house away from its foundation but it won’t be as neat as what’s shown in this classic.
The Day After Tomorrow
There’s a lot of meteorological mistakes in this disaster movie but I want to cover one of the more glaring ones. That cold air creeping in- freezing and killing anything it touches?
Cold air masses behind cold fronts can drop temperatures rapidly, but it won’t sneak in foot by foot and it certainly can’t be blocked by a door.
I don’t have the time or the patience to explain everything wrong with this but I will highlight two small kernels of truth in this otherwise unrealistic movie.
The first movie of this cult saga takes place in Los Angeles during a hurricane. While hurricanes normally don’t make landfall in southern California thanks to the cold water just off the coast, it has happened once back in 1858 with the only hurricane on record impacting San Diego with lots of rain but little wind.
Finally while sharks in tornadoes, which are actually waterspouts, likely do not occur- other much smaller animals sometimes do get transported in storms with several rare accounts of fish and frogs raining from the sky.
Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson