Like most meteorologists and weather enthusiasts, we were inspired by weather at a young age. The film Twister, produced by Warner Brothers Entertainment in 1996, was an entertainment masterpiece that attracted young minds to the idea of extreme weather. Looking back now, how accurate was the film Twister? We took it upon ourselves to fact check the film throughout its entirety, and here is what we found:
Twister fact check #1:
In the beginning of the movie, the caption says: “June, 1969”. While the television is on in Jo’s house, the tornado warning for Oklahoma County is being broadcasted over the television. As the family runs down the stairs on their way to the storm cellar, Jo’s father says: “The TV says it’s big. It might be an F-5.”
The Fujita Scale (F-Scale) was not introduced until 1971 by Dr. Ted Fujita and Allen Pearson, the Director of the National Severe Storms Forecasting Center Center (currently the Storm Prediction Center). Thus, it is impossible to say what the strength of the tornado may be during that time period.
Twister fact check #2:
While the family is outside running towards the storm cellar, the trees are blowing and branches are breaking off. Despite the strong winds, the father’s hat remains on his head without moving and the chickens have no issues running.
Twister fact check #3:
The first seen at the NSSL, it is early morning as the sun has yet to rise over Oklahoma (evident from the setting of Earth’s terminator still to the east). They mention that the cap is starting to break, and that Lifted Indices (LIs) are near -6 to -10. Those LIs are, indeed, favorable indices for severe weather. However, it is impossible to know exactly when the “cap” starts to erode (or break, as the script line states) prior to when convection initiates.
Twister fact check #4:
While Jo and Beltzer are working on the radar, Jo asks for a sector scan west-northwest, and to look at mid-levels of rotation and increase the PRF. The PRF (pulse repetition frequency) is the frequency at which pulses are emitted from the Doppler radar. If the PRF is high, the Doppler radar has less time to sample precipitation and/or rain at further distances. However, the supercell (which was real in the movie) was close to them so it is operationally correct to increase the PRF as it also increases the velocity range.
Twister fact check #5:
The screenshot of this scene at the beginning of the film was a real supercell. The crew actually had to stop filming one time (which was actually ongoing during the first VORTEX mission) due to a legitimate threat of a severe thunderstorm and tornado.
Twister fact check #6:
In the film, they mention an in-situ weather instrument that releases sensors into a tornado that is called Dorothy. Dorothy was inspired by the real life TOTO. TOTO (Totable Tornado Observatory) was an in-situ instrument developed by NOAA in attempts to measure winds inside a tornado. Here is a picture of Dorothy, DOT-3 (later seen in the film), and the real life TOTO, seen to the right.
Twister fact check #7:
While talking about Dorothy to the crew, they state how if they successfully deploy, they will be able to understand some of the complex dynamics involved within tornadoes and to increase warning time to 15 minutes. In real life, this was successfully carried out for the first time in history in South Dakota in 2003. There have been other successful deployments of in-situ instruments being very closely impacted by tornadoes that have been carried out by other field missions.
Twister fact check #8:
The NSSL said that the cap was breaking and towers were going 30 miles up the dryline. It is impossible to know when exactly the cap begins to break until storms initiate completely. The line in the movie is slightly inaccurate.
Twister fact check #9:
Bill mentions to Dusty that the sky is “going green.” A green luminescence within clouds has nothing to do with an indication of a tornado; rather, it is indicative of a hail core as the sunlight that percolates through the clouds is refracted through the hailstones, giving a greenish/blueish tint to the clouds.
Twister fact check #10:
Jonas tells Charles to do a sector scan on radar, and to keep looking for a hook. You do not need a hook appendage (hook echo) on Doppler radar to have a mesocyclone. Hook echoes do not always indicate a tornado, either.
Twister fact check #11:
The first tornado of their storm chase is seen forming from Beltzer’s point of view. Realistically, the formation that the movie depicts is a dynamic piping effect as the tornado descends from the mid-levels of the supercell. Inflow air that is being sucked into the tornado constricts near the low-levels, and tightens to give a rope-like look.
Twister fact check #12:
The first tornado of the day has no supercell characteristics surrounding it. No wall cloud, no inflow tail, or anything structurally correct. It’s just a stratus cloud deck. However, it is possible to have such high based tornadoes in real life.
Twister fact check #13:
The first tornado obliterates a barn and two grain bins. The size of a tornado in real life is not an indicator of its strength, and there have been cases of EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes that have had a rope or stovepipe structure to it.
Twister fact check #14: \
Bill and Jo take cover under the bridge. That is something that you should never do when seeking shelter from a tornado. The tornadic winds can channel underneath an overpass and increase tremendously, and your chances of death increase as a result.
Twister fact check #15:
When Melissa, Bill’s wife, says “oh my god” while driving towards the bridge, the tractor that was on top of the bridge can be seen near the side of the road after it was thrown by the tornado. If a tornado is violent enough, it can throw vehicles hundreds or even thousands of feet (such a case occurred on May 24th, 2011, in central Oklahoma).
Twister fact check #16:
Jonas asks if there is an updraft shift over the radio. There is no real visual way to tell if an updraft is changing its orientation. Depending on the magnitude of wind shear, updrafts can have different tilts (especially with a significant increase in vertical shear). Too much wind shear can also shear updrafts apart, leading to storm demise.
Twister fact check #17:
Bill says: “Look at the updraft, the angle. It’s going to shift its track.” There is no way to determine where a tornado is going to turn, and looking at “updraft angles” is a fictitious statement.
Twister fact check #18:
Lawrence says that there is an F-2, possibly F-3 tornado. There is no way to determine the strength of a tornado by looking at it. A damage survey is to be completed to determine its strength (the EF-Scale was implemented in 2007 to refine tornado intensity with better damage indicators).
Twister fact check #19:
Joey mentions that the tornado looks like it’s turning. While you can visually see a tornado turn, you can’t predict where it will turn as mentioned above. However, there are storm environments that can favor either left or right-moving supercells, and splitting or merging supercells.
Twister fact check #20:
As they near the waterspout, Bill mentions horizontal rain in associated with the waterspout. Horizontal rain has nothing to do with a tornado. Rain can be horizontal due to severe outflow winds that carry the raindrops at great speeds as the drops fall out of the downdraft, but it does not indicate a tornado is present.
Twister fact check #21:
Jo says: “Bill, we’re in the core.” If one is in the core of a supercell, it is a dangerous place to be. Extreme rain and very large hail can fall, and the core is within close proximity to where a tornado may form within a supercell. She also mentions that they are running into the flanking line, which is incorrect. The flanking line is a region of cumulus and developing cumulonimbi as the clouds near the updraft of the supercell.
Twister fact check #22:
Their truck is over taken by the waterspouts. Unless if it is pure luck that the tornado is weak, their vehicle would have been tossed by the waterspout/tornado.
Twister fact check #23:
While in Wakita, Oklahoma, visiting Jo’s aunt Meg, Dusty says that the television reported an F-3 tornado. Again, there’s no way to tell a tornado’s intensity until a damage survey is conducted.
Twister fact check #24:
They leave Wakita, Oklahoma, only to end up near Ames, Iowa, for the fourth tornado in the film. There is no possible way to make it that distance while driving and still have daylight given they left Wakita in the afternoon.
Twister fact check #25:
Joey says: “We got a touchdown!” by looking at the velocity scans on radar. There is no way to confirm a tornado by looking at the velocity data, and it was not possible to confirm tornadoes by radar until the implementation of dual-polarimetric radar that has capabilities of detecting non-meteorological objects such as debris.
Twister fact check #26:
When Beltzer says “Yeah, I got it, Billy. This is the best motion we’ve ever seen, it’s like a piece of this fatty is over a half mile wide” there is a highway sign with the state of Texas on it. Yet where the tornado occurs in this upcoming scene was in Iowa.
Twister fact check #27:
When the hail starts to fall as Bill and Jo near the tornado it is small, water coated hail. While all sizes of hail occur within a supercell, the larger hailstones are found closer to the updraft to the core. Sometimes, large hailstones can be flung out long distances from the downdraft. In regards to violent tornadoes, most cases of hail size during EF-5 rated tornadoes have been baseball size or larger.
Twister fact check #28:
It is possible for tornadoes to throw all sorts of debris, including some great distances as vertical winds can get underneath debris such as vehicles (or a boat such as in the movie).
Twister fact check #29:
They say that the tornado is back-building. Tornadoes do not back-build. Back-building occurs within clusters of thunderstorms as thunderstorms continue to initiate upwind of the storm (or behind it). This is due to weak mid-level winds that can steer storms. While they may appear stationary, the downwind cells fizzle out and the upwind storms are the most rigorous. Flash flooding is a major risk during a back building thunderstorm event.
Twister fact check #30:
During the drive-in movie theater scene, the crowd of people at the drive-in were Kansas State University broadcast students. They were casted as extras in the film. Lawrence takes shelter in his truck, which you should never do during a tornado as it can easily loft the vehicle.
Twister fact check #31:
After the tornado, Beltzer mentions to Melissa that they experienced downdrafts and microbursts. The downdraft is a completely separate component from the tornado; however, downdraft/outflow winds can be extremely intense and can sometimes cause extensive straightline wind damage. A microburst is a rapid downward acceleration of air out of the downdraft, and can often lead to minor or major wind damage.
Twister fact check #32:
When they arrive in Wakita again, the damage that you see in the movie was real. However, part of the town was intentionally destroyed by the film crew as part of the movie set. As a cameo, Jo’s parents at the beginning of the movie are briefly seen standing within the damaged area.
Twister fact check #33:
Dusty says to Jo that the NSSL is predicting an F-5 the next day. That is impossible to do, no matter how intense forecast parameters are.
Twister fact check #34:
They say that the tornado hit Canton, Oklahoma. This is prior to impacting Wakita. That means the tornado track length in excess of 80 miles if it were to have occurred in real life.
Twister fact check #35:
A violent tornado (EF-4+ strength) can pick up a house off of its foundation and destroy it (there is video evidence of this). This is seen in the film during the last tornado scene, as the house drops right into the road in front of Bill and Jo. Though, the likelihood of a house being near perfectly in tact after being picked up by a tornado is near 0%.
Twister fact check #36:
Tornadoes can completely destroy radio towers (and power lines). This occurred in real life on May 22nd, 2010, near Bowdle, South Dakota, by an EF-4 tornado.
Twister fact check #37:
Bill and Jo strap themselves to pipes that go down “at least 30 feet”, according to Bill’s line. The chances of surviving a direct impact of an F/EF-5 rated tornado with winds greater than 200mph is extremely low. If the wind does not kill you, any flying debris that impacts you will as the force is the velocity cubed. If 2×4 pieces of wood, metal, or a vehicle is traveling over 200mph, then that is a tremendous force involved. The fatality rate for F/EF-5 rated tornadoes has been statistically high.
Final Twister fact #38:
The house at the end of the movie was a real house that was actually damaged by a tornado, and it was intact after impact in real life.
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