Rough weather can make any trip through the countryside an unpleasant experience. But what do you do when you’re out for a drive and have an unexpected encounter with a tornado?
Last week, a twister barreled through western Germany, and two drivers were caught in the terrifying tower of spinning dirt and debris. As seen in video of the event, both cars slowly pulled to a stop and rode out the winds. In this instance, the drivers likely did the right thing, given the deceptively low intensity of the storm, according to National Geographic Explorer and meteorologist Anton Seimon.
“At the time of the vehicle encounter seen in the video, the tornado, although visually very impressive, was very likely at the lowest end of the tornado strength spectrum, with winds at or below hurricane force,” or about 74 miles an hour, Seimon says. (Here’s the science behind how tornadoes form.)
However, for stronger tornadoes, it’s best to try and drive away using cross roads at right angles to the expected path of the oncoming funnel. If no escape route is available, the recommended action may seem counterintuitive.
“Abandoning the vehicle and lying face down in the lowest place possible, such as a drainage ditch, is [recommended] over trying to ride out the tornado within the vehicle,” Seimon says. Even relatively weak tornadoes can overturn and roll vehicles, and stronger ones can lift them into the air completely and throw them long distances, causing injury and even death to any occupants. (This storm chaser risked it all for tornado science.)
The German twister hit several towns, and people in its path reported multiple injuries. While Europe averages fewer reported tornadoes a year than the United States—300 versus 1,400—they aren’t a rare occurrence, and they represent an understudied and underestimated danger.
“It is not unusual to see strong tornadoes in Germany,” says John Allen, assistant professor of meteorology at Central Michigan University. “Europe has had many devastating and fatal tornadoes, and these have been described widely through history back to the 1600s.”
Between 1950 and 2015, European tornadoes resulted in 316 deaths and 4,462 injuries. Despite this destructive history, many factors have contributed to European tornadoes being underreported, according to a 2017 study from the American Meteorological Society. That includes a lack of forecasting tools, little public awareness, and the absence of tornado tracking databases for many countries in the region.
This lack of reporting ability has led to a U.S.-dominated view of tornadoes among the public, as well with some meteorologists. Few European meteorological services even issue tornado warnings.
To help combat this, the AMA study authors recommend that European meteorological services work more closely to help establish a unified tornado database, improve forecasting and warning systems, and create preparedness and response programs.