Today we assess some of the commentary around a viral tornado video from the weekend to discuss if it would be possible to “blow up” a tornado.
Can you actually blow up a tornado?
That’s a provocative subheading above, but it’s taken on a little more curiosity after video emerged from this past weekend’s tragic tornado outbreak in the Deep South and Tennessee Valley.
The tornadoes killed six and injured over 80 in Middle Tennessee on Saturday. Clarksville was hit with an EF-3 tornado. This area has seen more than their fair share of significant weather in recent years.
A video from one of the tornadoes is what seems to have grabbed everyone’s attention, and justifiably so.
But what’s notable about this whole thing: In the original video, it appears that, if only for a fleeting moment, the condensation funnel (what you are visually seeing as the tornado) disappears. Naturally, that started some interesting conversations on various social media platforms. The underlying question you would expect humans, especially on social media to ask was: Can you actually, like, blow up a tornado?
Before we go on: No. We cannot “blow up” tornadoes, just as we cannot “nuke” hurricanes. It’s too complex, not to mention the likelihood of collateral damage. So, let’s just get that out of the way.
But in a theoretical world without risk to lives or property, could you do it? I still don’t think so. Noted storm chaser Reed Timmer posted on X, formerly Twitter over the weekend that the “explosion changed the thermodynamic gradients dramatically within the vortex and blew up the Clausius-Clapeyron equation.” I’m not going to lose our audience here with a math lesson, but the C-C equation relates saturation vapor pressure to temperature. What is saturation vapor pressure? Vapor pressure is basically exactly that: What is the pressure of the water vapor in the air. But at a given temperature, there’s a maximum amount of moisture that the air can hold. That would give you the saturation vapor pressure. Using C-C, we can determine that as temperature increases, the saturation vapor pressure of the air increases exponentially. In other words: Warm air can hold a lot more moisture than cold air, and the relationship is exponential.
What does this all mean? Theoretically (very theoretically), the heat released from an explosion within the condensation funnel of a tornado would lead to a dramatic increase in saturation vapor pressure, thus decreasing the humidity in the vicinity of the funnel. You’re not adding more moisture to the equation, so all you’re doing is increasing temperature and increasing the air’s capacity to hold water — exponentially. All else equal, you’ve decreased humidity, and because the air is no longer saturated, the condensation funnel (which you see when the air is saturated) visually disappears.
If the condensation funnel is our visual cue of a tornado and it disappears, then to the human mind the tornado itself has disappeared. So you can actually blow up a tornado, right? Not quite. Other videos from other angles that I’ve seen seem to show the condensation funnel picking back up a little after the viral video ends. Meaning the tornado was only briefly visually disrupted, not destroyed. Were the winds disrupted or just our visual cues? I’m not sure. Thunderstorms are big, and the forces producing tornadoes are also significant. To truly destroy a tornado, you’d likely have to go after the supercell thunderstorm itself, which is producing the tornado, in theory perhaps something that could be done but in practice probably next to impossible.
While it’s certainly a fun thought exercise, also keep in mind that we’re all taking some liberties here to make assumptions about this using the science that we know. There could be another explanation for what’s happening here, but the one suggested by Reed and others seems to be the most reasonable that I’ve seen. But the bigger point still stands: Blowing up a tornado is not a practical alternative to preparedness, structure hardening, shelter availability, and awareness on severe weather days.