Assessing Tornado Wind Speeds from Damage Photographs

Friday 1:50pm-2:10pm E Building 202
Teaching Demonstration Part of Friday


Cody Kirkpatrick, Indiana University-Bloomington
Devon Colcord, Anoka-Ramsey Community College
Devon Colcord, Anoka-Ramsey Community College


Participants will be led through the process of determining the wind speed of a tornado, as well as the corresponding rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, by assessing the damage to various human-made structures. Examples of how this activity can be implemented in both the college and K12 setting will be provided.


Tornadoes are one of the most recognizable geoscience phenomena, with over 1000 tornadoes reported in the United States each year. In this classroom activity, students explore photographs of the damage that tornadoes cause to human-made structures, with the goal of using some of the same techniques as experts to estimate the wind speeds that produced the damage. By learning how tornadoes produce damage, students can develop their knowledge of building practices and can be given time to reflect on how to better survive these phenomena – with the ultimate goal of being better, more scientifically-literate citizens.

In our implementations of this activity, students work in teams to inspect damage photos in detail, engaging in the scientific process, and must wrestle with data that are sometimes conflicting and "messy." The activity can be implemented at a variety of levels: college courses in natural disasters; high school courses in Earth and environmental science or integrated physics; or even with advanced middle school students. We will provide example resources for both college and K12 implementations.


The activity is appropriate for students at a variety of levels, including introductory-level college science courses with a natural disasters component as well as middle- and high-school courses with an Earth Science focus (NGSS: MS-ESS3-2, for example). Little to no prior knowledge of tornadoes is needed prior to engaging in the exercise. Previously, the authors have used the activity in classes ranging from ~20-120 students, in class periods of ~1 hour, however the length of the activity can easily be shortened or expanded as needed.

Why It Works

The tornado damage activity allows students the opportunity to experience how professionals determine the Enhanced Fujita Scale rating for a tornado, based on the damage a tornado inflicts on various human-made structures.

Resources and Handouts