As a tornado survivor, I have become acutely aware of how destructive a tornado can be. I will never forget it being so loud that I could not hear my own voice yelling at the top of my lungs, the paralyzing fear, and how quickly it was over before I was able to even react. I am one of the lucky ones to have survived a brush so close to one of nature’s most violent forces.
Here are a few ways to be prepared and have advance warning about a tornado coming at night.
1. Hear an Undulating Roaring Sound
Several seconds before the tornado hit our house, I remember hearing a whirring sound, almost like being in a giant carwash. It sounds like a chugging locomotive, just amplified 1000 times. If you hear a deafening sound that gets softer then louder over and over again, it’s a sign that you need to get to the safest place in your home immediately.
When a tornado borrows the wind, the erratic sounds go away, and you can listen for the rumble that, unlike thunder, does not let up.
2. Witness a Strong Wind Shift
Along with other storm conditions, tornadoes come with winds that suddenly change. Besides intense wind with the hail or heavy rain already mentioned, winds that encourage tornado development come after a dead calm. They can also be a part of the system under the tornado’s control, and the funnel lies just beyond the shift.
3. Spot Bright Ground Flashes
Especially at night, you can catch sight of bright flashes near the ground if a tornado is coming. The lights tend to be small and range from blue-green to white. These flashes are different from lightning, which will be higher up and light up the shapes of the storm clouds.
Ground flashes indicate that the storm has destroyed power lines. For that, the windstorm is capable of strong enough wind to snap them on its own or by lifting debris that broke the power lines. Both of these possibilities can also mean a tornado is involved.
These flashes, like lightning, might also help you to see the tornado at night.
4. Notice a Green Sky
This is something hard to see at night and on the East coast, where there are trees blocking much of the horizon. If you live out West or in open country, this is definitely something to look for.
If the night is early, late sun rays beyond the storm clouds can create a green sky, which comes from hail in thunderstorms. As the ice gets blown around, light refracts on them. Thunderstorms come with tall clouds, allowing ample room to bounce around water droplets that turn into hail.
Thus, the green refraction happens during severe thunderstorms.
They don’t directly indicate a tornado, but they can tell you what is in the storm. Tornadoes are more likely with these other storm factors.
5. You Experience Hail or Heavy Rain With a Strong Wind Shift
Large hail and heavy rain along with a severe wind shift indicate you have a storm with a likelihood for tornadoes. Besides darkness, hail and rain can obscure the tornado itself, so observing precipitation getting whipped around in the wind gives you an extra warning.
If the hail has a chance to get to the size of a golf ball or more, it means the storm’s updraft can reach far up into the atmosphere where tornadoes first develop.
So the larger the hail, the greater likelihood of a tornado.
6. See a Wall Cloud
Wall clouds descend from a storm and form a pedestal at the base. They develop fast and occur where there is the most updraft. Since tornadoes build from updrafts, wall clouds tell you there are significant tornado-building conditions.
Ground flashes light these clouds well at night because they are both low.
7. Listen to Local News and Radio
While this is not something many people will do in the middle of the night, your best heads-up to tell if a tornado is coming at night is to pay close attention to your local meteorologist. Keep your radio handy if you’re watching your meteorologist on the TV. You never know when you’ll lose electricity or need to shelter where the TV cannot join you, but the radio can.
You can also register your phone for emergency alerts, so you’ll always be connected in an emergency.
The radio and local news will report what the radar can detect but your eyes cannot, and they issue alerts if it’s time for you to pay closer attention. Tornado watches are issued for 4 to 8 hours and monitor possible conditions for a tornado.
Tornado warnings mean that a storm spotter reporting into the National Weather Service has seen a tornado, or the radar shows enough spin to suggest a tornado. The tornado warning may remain in effect for 30 minutes. During this time, you’ll want to track where this warning is tracking compared to your location.
If you lie in the path of the warned tornado, immediately shelter away from windows and preferably pick a basement or interior room.
8. Spot a Rotating, Funnel-Shaped Cloud
Spotting a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud is difficult at night. But if your area has enough lights and the storm produces enough lightning, you might still be able to spot weather formations.
Specifically, the funnel will protrude from the higher anvil-shaped thundercloud. You can see the funnel up high at first and down low after it reaches the ground. It’s the fastest part of the storm. Storm chasers keep an eye out for the debris tossed from these winds when they drive at night.
The rotation doesn’t have to be drastic to warrant you taking shelter.
Thunderstorm clouds move noticeably straight along their trajectory. Once they start to twist along the way, a tornado can develop. This twisting is what your meteorologist first looks for on their radar when it comes to tornado warnings.
9. See an Advancing Cloud of Debris
Not all tornadoes develop funnel clouds, and you don’t always have enough lighting to see them at night. The funnel clouds may be there, but a wall of other clouds block the sight.
Either way, their cloud bases blow a lot of debris along the ground. If this cloud of debris comes toward you and becomes more intense, something more severe like a tornado might be on its way.
If you have no better conditions to work with, paying attention to a cloud of debris is a warning at night.
10. Observe a Whirling Dust Debris
If you see debris swirling in the street during a storm, it might indicate a new tornado is developing above you. Check if your meteorologist is tracking a possible tornado in your location.
The two factors together might mean the tornado exists but has yet to reach the ground. Whirling on the ground requires an updraft of wind, just like full-blown tornadoes.
11. Experience a Severe Thunderstorm
Supercell thunderstorms develop before tornadoes. As the storm approaches, be wary of the lead side of the system. This side is where the fastest winds, most lightning, and updrafts most often occur.
Your meteorologist will use the radar to check for rotating winds within the frontline of these storms.
12. Notice a Sudden Calm After a Thunderstorm
Sometimes tornadoes come after the initial wave of a thunderstorm. Hail, heavy rain, and strong winds will stop suddenly because the tornado in the area has consumed the storm system and will release that energy as it rips through.
Sometimes a calm is genuine, but it’s worth paying attention if the radar still shows storms or if you want to play it safe.
13. You Find Falling Debris
Besides debris getting tossed around at ground level, tornadic storms also bring it down from high up. Tornadoes do this when they’ve already formed and have had time to grab and lift objects from the ground.
Thrown and fallen debris is one of the most dangerous aspects of a tornado. Heavy and sharp objects can turn up miles from their original location. In turn, these objects destroy buildings. You should be secure in your designated safe room before this time.
Have a Plan
Just as important as knowing the signs of a tornado coming at night is to have a safety plan. Once the warnings of a tornado show in your area, you have at best a few minutes to take shelter.
Remember these approaches to protect yourself from the notorious projectiles from tornadoes:
- Avoid windows.
- Go to a basement if possible.
- Go to an interior room, hallway, or under a staircase on a base floor otherwise.
- Have a sturdy object to hide under such as a table.
- Use additional protection like a sleeping bag or a mattress.
- Don’t hide below heavy objects the next floor up like pianos and appliances.
- Crouch low and cover your head.
If you live in a mobile home, you’ll want a shelter built into the ground or have a neighbor with a house with a foundation willing to take you in during a storm.
If you’re in a vehicle and cannot drive perpendicular to the tornado or know which direction that is, then find a public facility you can shelter in or lie down in a deep ditch away from everything.
In case you happen to be away from home during a tornado, note places you’re likely to be if out in public. Remember to use interior locations, bathrooms, and figure out how you can get to them quickly. Some places will have tornado plans and help you out, but you never know.
When the weather service issues a tornado watch, double-check that you have supplies ready in your shelter and everyone you’re with knows what to do and where to go. Also, always keep a radio nearby.
After the tornado strikes, you’ll also want a plan to meet up with your family afterward. Because of the chaos outside, you should have basics like water and sleeping bags available in your shelter, as it might be a while before emergency services can help you.
I hope this article is helpful and that you never have to experience the horror of a close encounter with a tornado. Thanks for reading!
For more, check out How to Survive a Tornado in the Wilderness.
Hey, I’m Jim and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!