As we flip the calendar on the decade, many meteorological events will remain etched into our memory. But few tempests can rival the power, beauty and horror of a tornado.
The 2010s featured their fair share of memorable tornadoes. 2011 included the most extreme tornado outbreak on record. Destructive tornadoes peppered population centers, altering lives forever. Others remained over open fields, as if posing for a camera.
We look back — in no particular order — on 10 of the most memorable tornado events of the 2010s.
The tornado and tornado events listed are not necessarily the most damaging and deadly in every case; some are included for their unique meteorological qualities and/or appearance.
Caution: Some videos contain explicit language.
Phil Campbell-Hackleburg, Ala.: April 27, 2011
This tornado was perhaps the most violent on a monumental day of destruction that accompanied a most vicious tornado outbreak. More than 200 tornadoes touched down across the Deep South and Tennessee Valley on April 27, 2011. The most menacing among them was the Phil Campbell-Hackleburg tornado in northwest Alabama, which killed 72, making it the deadliest in state history and, at the time, the deadliest nationwide since 1955.
It was on the ground for an astounding 2 hours 15 minutes, plowing a path 132 miles long and as much as a mile and a quarter wide. At times, the tornado was shrouded in rugged, low cloud cover and emblazoned with an eerie blue hue. In a heavily forested area with low cloud bases and storm motion approaching highway speeds, many people didn’t know they were looking at a tornado until seconds before it hit.
The depth of the destruction was incredible. In Phil Campbell, a 25-foot chunk of pavement was ripped from the road and tossed a third of a mile. Vehicles were carried the distance of two football fields. A brick home was leveled, with debris strewn as far as 40 yards downwind.
Despite the immense death toll, this tornado — which hit comparatively smaller population centers — was dwarfed in media coverage by what transpired in Tuscaloosa or Birmingham, and just outside of Huntsville. Hit by dozens upon dozens of tornadoes in one day, the Yellowhammer State was overwhelmed.
Bennington, Kan.: May 28, 2013
The Bennington tornado was exactly the kind of tornado that stormchasers covet. It moved at less than 2 mph at times, dissipated a little over two miles from its touchdown location and lasted an hour. The photogenic tornado put on a show, all while avoiding causing any injury or loss of human life.
Officially it was rated an EF3, but mobile Doppler radar measured 247 mph winds just 100 meters above the ground — well into the EF5 range. The local National Weather Service office believed that EF4 winds made it down to the surface but noted that “one cannot rate tornado intensity by non-damage data sources.”
Regardless, the nearly mile-wide tornado was a sight to behold.
Pilger, Neb.: June 16, 2014
Amid a volatile atmospheric setup, one major supercell thunderstorm in Nebraska produced five tornadoes — four of which were rated EF4 strength. Not only that, but two of the tornadoes were simultaneously on the ground less than a mile apart. One hit the town of Pilger, killing one person. The other developed to the southeast.
The duo performed a twister tango that has yet to be replicated to such a visually striking degree.
El Reno and Moore, Okla.: 2011 and 2013
El Reno and Moore may be two of the most destructive tornado-prone communities on the planet.
On May 24, 2011, a string of nasty supercells developed over west central Oklahoma, moving east and approaching the Interstate 35 corridor during rush hour. It was the recipe for a disastrous evening.
An EF5 tornado developed west of El Reno, crossing Interstate 40 and moving north of Oklahoma City on its 63-mile path. Nine people died.
Farther south, a pair of EF4 tornadoes touched down. One of them stopped just short of Moore, Okla. (The other dissipated before entering Norman.)
Fast-forward to May 20, 2013, when Moore was hit head-on. A devastating EF5 tornado claimed two dozen lives as it leveled a neighborhood just a few blocks south of where a notorious F5 struck on May 3, 1999.
A week and a half later, parts of El Reno were hit again — by a 2.6-mile-wide, world-record-setting tornado with EF5 winds. It expanded rapidly, moved erratically and caught even veteran storm chasers off guard. Legendary storm chaser and engineer Tim Samaras and his chase partners were killed by the tornado. His vehicle was reportedly compressed and carried one-half mile.
Dodge City, Kan.: May 24, 2016
A single supercell thunderstorm produced about a dozen high-contrast tornadoes that danced ominously close to — but just west of — Dodge City, Kan. At multiple times, more than one tornado was on the ground simultaneously. At one point, three twisters were all visible at once. Five EF3 tornadoes and three EF2 tornadoes were confirmed in western Kansas.
The next day featured a violent tornado near Chapman, Kan.
Wynnewood/Sulphur, Okla.: May 8, 2016
May 7 to 10, 2016, proved to be a memorable outbreak of severe weather: 57 tornadoes touched down between Oklahoma and Kentucky as a low-pressure system along the U.S.-Canada border dragged a cold front eastward.
Several weak tornadoes occurred in Colorado in May 8, but the next day tornadoes swarmed the zone just west of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma. A powerful EF4 tornado touched down near Katie, killing one person and causing damage or destruction to several widely spaced homes in the area.
Farther to the east, the same supercell thunderstorm spawned a mile-wide wedge tornado that carved an extensive path near the towns of Sulphur and Davis. Two children clung to a toilet as their home was ripped to shreds around them. That tornado was rated an EF3.
That same storm also produced an extremely unusual anticyclonic (clockwise) tornado in the rain and hail-pelted downdraft region of the storm. Nearly all supercellular tornadoes spin counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the exact nature of that potential tornado is still being debated.
Elsewhere, the day featured a spectacular LP “low precipitation” supercell over Lake Thunderbird, the storm’s barrow corkscrew-shaped updraft captured by local news helicopters and broadcast live on the air.
Capitol, Mont.: June 28, 2018
With a population of 3, Capitol, Mont., isn’t exactly a booming city. Despite a number of picturesque tornadoes touching down this day, much of the national media’s attention was focused instead on a powerful derecho blasting from the Corn Belt south through the Tennessee Valley and all the way to the Gulf Coast.
Pampa, Tex.: November 16, 2015
Before this night, “no tornadoes had previously been documented in the Texas Panhandle during the month of November,” according to the National Weather Service. At least five twisters touched down in Gray County, which includes the city of Pampa. Pampa was hit by an F4 tornado on June 8, 1995.
Multiple rounds of supercell storms moved over the same areas during this November night in 2015. One of the tornadoes was rated an EF3.
Things got even more interesting when a twister moved over a cornfield, carrying corn stalks high enough in the sky to serve as a nucleus for hail production.
Joplin, Mo.: May 22, 2011
May 22, 2011 — a day that will live in meteorological infamy. A cataclysmic EF5 tornado scoured much of Joplin, Mo.; 158 people died in the storm, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado since 1947. It remains the seventh deadliest in U.S. history.
Questions were raised about the efficacy of tornado warnings issued and how they were communicated. Jasper County, Mo., had also been subjected to an unusually high false alarm rate with tornado warnings over the previous several years preceding the Joplin tornado’s vicious onslaught.
Carr Fire Tornado: July 26, 2018
Amid the horrific Carr Fire, which burned nearly 230,000 acres in Northern California in 2018, a tornado developed with 143 mph winds. Although some called it a “fire whirl,” it wasn’t that; fire whirls usually exist on smaller scales with rotating winds that snake their way up from the ground. This was an actual tornado made up of fire.
The pyrocumulonimbus cloud that formed from the fire’s smoke plume behaved like a supercell thunderstorm. Environmental winds favored rotating updrafts. Combined with explosive rising motion just before sunset, the ingredients were ripe for tornadogenesis. The fire tornado was caught on video. It reportedly killed three members of the same family. The twister toppled large metal transmission lines, uprooted trees and caused house damage.
If the National Weather Service were to list this in their official database as a tornado, it would be the strongest tornado ever recorded in central-northern California ... and would be the state’s first killer twister.
Campo, Colo.: May 31, 2010
Bowdle, Colo.: May 22, 2010
Springfield/Monson, Mass.: June 1, 2011
Dimmitt, Tex.: April 14, 2017
Sulphur, Okla.: April 30, 2019