The strongest tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, an EF-5, packs wind speeds of more than 200 mph and destroys everything in its path.
But some items that are literally pulled out of damaged buildings and never seen again, survive.
Recently, a woman in Alabama undertook a Herculean effort to find debris scattered during the historic tornado outbreaks in April 2011.
Using a Facebook page started by Patty Bullion, a resident of Lester in extreme northern Alabama, John Knox, a University of Georgia associate professor of geography and faculty member of the atmospheric sciences program, formed a team to go through the pictures.
"What we were able to do is use a database collected on Facebook of objects that had been found and scanned and put on a Facebook page and returned to their owners," Knox said. "We were able to use that information to put together a much more comprehensive study of items returned to their owners."
The scientists were able to track down where the pictures were found and where they came from when the storm hit and put together accurate distances for how far items were carried in the storm.
Knox said out of the nearly 1,000 items studied, it could be the most comprehensive list of items sucked up by a tornado and tracked that anyone has ever put together.
And it all started with Bullion's page called "Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes."
"It is amazing," Knox said. "This would have never been possible before without Facebook."
Knox said that a picture set the record, at this point, for longest distance traveled when it was picked up in the EF-5 tornado that hit Phil Campbell and carried 220 miles to Lenoir City, TN.
How is it possible for a single picture to travel so far? Knox said it could have traveled the entire distance of the super cell's track, or there is another theory.
"We have estimated it will take maybe five or six minutes for that object to get up to 20,000 feet or more and then at that point, either it is ejected from the cloud or goes up in the anvil, the top part of the storm, then catches a ride on the jet stream."
The information collected in where the debris falls is something Knox said could be used in the future to save lives.
"If, for example, a tornado hits hazardous waste, nuclear power plants, those cases we will want to know where the debris is going to land quickly," Knox said. "We could issue a debris watch box. And show a certain area, where the debris would go."
The study was co-authored by graduate student Alan Black. Black said he is still amazed at the data they collected from Facebook.
"I think one of the biggest benefits of our research is to let people know that even if the tornado doesn't hit me, I could be killed by an object that came out of a tornado," Black said. "If we can prevent a few injuries that way, that is just great."
Tuesday, May 21 2013 12:50 PM EDT2013-05-21 16:50:22 GMT
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