Tornadoes are one of nature’s most powerful and destructive forces. The winds inside a tornado can reach over 300 miles per hour, causing incredible damage to anything in their path. But could these violent winds be strong enough to lift and carry something as heavy as a cow? In this article, we’ll examine whether or not a tornado is capable of carrying cattle.
The Power of Tornado Winds
To determine if a tornado can carry a cow, we first need to understand the immense power and wind speeds tornadoes can generate. Inside the vortex of a tornado, wind speeds can top 300 mph. The most violent tornadoes are rated EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, with estimated wind speeds over 200 mph. However, even lower-rated tornadoes can have very high winds.
An EF2 tornado, for example, can have winds up to 135 mph. The extreme winds are caused by the rapid vertical motion inside a tornado, which creates a huge drop in air pressure at the surface. This causes surrounding air to rush in horizontally at incredible speeds.
These extreme winds produce enough force to demolish brick and wood-frame homes, flip cars and trucks, and hurl objects like trees and street signs hundreds of yards through the air. But could this amount of wind energy lift something as heavy as a cow?
Weight and Size of Cattle
The average weight of cattle can vary greatly depending on breed, age, and sex. However, a typical adult cow can weigh between 1,000 to 1,400 pounds. Here are some examples of average cow weights by breed:
|Angus||1,100 – 1,500 lbs|
|Hereford||1,000 – 1,400 lbs|
|Holstein||1,300 – 1,500 lbs|
In addition to their weight, cattle also have a large and awkward shape that creates a lot of wind resistance. An average cow can measure 5-6 feet tall and 6-7 feet long. So for a tornado to lift a cow, it would need to generate enough force to overcome at least 1,000 pounds of weight and a shape that creates substantial drag.
Forces Needed to Lift a Cow
For an object to be lifted, the upward lifting forces must be greater than the downward gravitational force. The gravitational force pulling down on an object is simply its weight, which for a 1,400 pound cow would be around 6,800 Newtons (1 Newton = 0.2248 pounds of force).
To balance this downward force, a tornado would need to exert an upward wind force greater than 6,800 Newtons. Wind force is related to the wind speed squared. Higher wind speeds generate exponentially greater forces.
One study found that wind speeds of around 134 mph can generate enough force to overturn a car, which weighs around 3,000 pounds. But to lift that 3,000 pound car straight up, the required wind speed was estimated to be closer to 184 mph. This demonstrates how much higher wind speeds are needed to lift heavy objects versus just pushing them over.
Cases of Tornadoes Lifting Cattle
There are many anecdotal reports of tornadoes lifting cattle and other large animals. In one well-known case in Kansas in 1916, a tornado reportedly sucked up a cow and carried it over 100 yards. The cow was apparently unharmed by the event.
In another case in Missouri in 2006, several cows were lifted and thrown by a high-end EF2 or low-end EF3 tornado. The cows were found in trees and bushes over 100 yards away from their original location. One of the cows survived, while two others did not.
There are other instances of tornadoes lifting small planes, trains, and vehicles like buses and trailers. But it does appear that lifting something as heavy and aerodynamically resistant as a cow would require extremely powerful winds over 150 mph or more.
Factors That Influence Lift
There are several factors that can influence whether a tornado can lift a cow:
- Wind speed – Higher wind speeds exponentially increase lift forces.
- Weight of cow – Heavier cows require greater lift forces.
- Shape/orientation – An broadside cow has greater resistance than a streamlined cow.
- Hoof impact – Cattle lifted while standing can be slammed down, limiting lift time.
- Flying debris – Debris striking a cow may limit lift potential.
A streamlined cow oriented parallel to the wind direction in a very intense tornado maximizes the potential for lift. But the occurrence of flying debris and hoof impact limit lift time in most real-world scenarios.
Some physics simulations have tested the tornado wind speeds required to lift a cow. One simulation found that winds of around 170 mph could briefly lift an 1,100 pound cow, but stable lift was achieved only at around 210 mph. Another simulation found that over 180 mph was needed to lift a standing cow.
In these physics models, the cows are treated as simple blocks, without accounting for their full shape, movement, and other real-world complexities. But the simulations demonstrate the high winds required for any lift at all, supporting the need for winds well over 150 mph in an actual tornado.
Energy Required to Lift a Cow
Another way to analyze the plausibility of a tornado lifting a cow is to calculate the kinetic energy it would require. Kinetic energy is energy of motion and can be calculated using the formula:
KE = 0.5 x m x v2
Where m is mass and v is velocity. Let’s use a 1,400 pound cow and a 165 mph wind speed needed for lift:
KE = 0.5 x (1400/2.2) x (165 x 1.467)2
= 0.5 x 636 kg x 70.84 m/s2
= 1.15 x 107 Joules
That’s over 11.5 million Joules of kinetic energy required to lift the cow. For comparison, a 100 mph fastball has only about 1,000 Joules of energy. So lifting a cow would take 10,000 times more energy than a professional baseball pitch.
This enormous energy requirement further supports that extremely high tornado wind speeds, exceeding 150 mph, would be needed to have any chance of lifting cattle.
In summary, it is possible for a tornado to lift a cow, but the required wind speeds are immense. Credible reports indicate that only the very strongest tornadoes, rated EF4 or EF5, are capable of significant cow lift. Wind speeds of 150 mph or greater are needed to overcome the weight and wind resistance of a cow and lift it off the ground.
The physics and energy involved mean that lighter animals are much more susceptible to being picked up and carried by high winds. However, the tremendous power of tornadoes can sometimes overcome even the hefty weight of a cow and briefly send it airborne. But stable lift and carry are only plausible in the most violent, highest-wind tornado events.