An EF5 tornado has the most violent winds on Earth, more powerful than a hurricane. The strongest winds ever measured were the 302 mph reading, measured by radar, during the EF5 tornado that struck Moore on May 3, 1999, according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the Weather Underground.
Still, when it comes to weather events, scientists usually know more about and can better predict hurricanes, winter storms, heat waves and other big events.
That's because even though a tornado like the one that struck Moore was 1.3 miles wide, with a path of 17 miles long, in meteorological terms it was small, hard to track, rare and even harder to study. So tornadoes are still more of a mystery than their hurricane cousins, even though tropical storms form over ocean areas where no one is, while this tornado formed only miles from the very National Weather Service office that specializes in tornadoes.
"This phenomenon can be so deadly you would think that something that catastrophic, that severe would lend itself to understanding," said Adam Houston, meteorology professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "But we're fighting the inherent unpredictability of these small-scale phenomena."
Unlike hurricanes, which forecasters can fly through in planes and monitor with buoys and weather stations, usually over a period of days, tornadoes form quickly and normally last only a matter of minutes. While meteorologists and television hosts chase tornadoes and try to get readings, it's not usually enough. This storm lasted 40 minutes — long for a regular tornado but not too unusual for such a violent one, said research meteorologist Harold Brooks at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
Still, the conditions needed to form such a violent and devastating tornado were there and forecasters knew it, warning five days in advance that something big could happen, Brooks said.