What Happens If You Get Sucked Up By A Tornado

When you receive a tornado warning alert, most news stations will immediately follow the warning by telling you how to stay safe. Staying safe in this scenario would entail avoiding the tornado. One hundred percent of experts agree that it is best to try to avoid a tornado's dangerous path. But what happens if you can't? How realistic are your nightmares?

As Dorothy's Auntie Em would testify, a variety of scenarios may play out if you got sucked inside a tornado. The most unlikely among them is that you will swirl into the distance, watching an evil witch laugh at you as she rides a cruiser bike (this only happens in "The Wizard of Oz"). According to How Stuff Works, most people swept up by tornadoes don't stay inside the vortex very long: the wind will probably drop you back onto the ground. Most injuries are caused by debris. However, tornadoes can and do sweep people up and carry them across distances, although most don't have time while inside to take notes on the scenery within the eye of the storm. But what would you see, hear, and smell if you were swept up into a tornado and held within its terrible grasp?

You'll smell raindrops and roses (or sulfur and swamps)

According to storm chaser Tim Samaras, the eye of a tornado actually smells quite lovely. Samaras says that those who've survived cyclones frequently report experiencing a sweet scent of freshly-cut grass, waterfalls, or raw earth after a storm (via a 2013 report by National Geographic). This makes sense when you think about what the cyclone's been digesting. According to Samaras, tornadoes still chewing on the wreckage of a house might smell less pleasant than spring lilies: for example, they might smell like natural gas.

In "The Smell of Tornadoes" (via Weatherwise, posted at Taylor & Francis Online), Howard G. Altschule and Dr. Bernard Vonnegut speculate tornadoes might smell like sulfur or a freshly-lit match. In 1917, Alfred Wegener claimed that the tornado he encountered didn't smell lovely at all, but rather reeked with a swamp-like odor. In 1928, Will Keller of Greensburg, Kansas claimed to have stood directly beneath a tornado funnel as it passed over (and through) his home. In a 1930 interview about the rare experience, Keller told Time: "There was a strong gassy odor and it seemed that I could not breathe. A screaming, hissing sound came directly from the end of the funnel."

You'll hear bees and freight trains (or waterfalls and moaning)

Samaras encountered many tornadoes in his career as a storm-chaser. Although he was (advisably) not sucked inside during his tenure (until his tragic death, per National Geographic), he got as close as anyone could get without succumbing to the storm. "Being close to a tornado is one of those incredible, fleeting moments," Samaras said. "[T]he wind flow; you can actually hear it. And the sounds are different. If [the tornado is] in an open field, it sounds like a waterfall. If it's in a populated area, it becomes more of a thundering sound." (That's what you'd hear before the storm swallows you, at least.) 

Inside the belly of a tornado, as you're enveloped within a sulfur-like swirl (or the scent of rain, if you're lucky), you might also be accosted by the sound of an apocalyptic droning, thrashing, or violently-vibrating buzz. In Slate, tornado historian Tom Grazulis describes accounts of those of who've heard the humming sound of bees, the churning of waterfalls, or the boom of a train. Slate says others have compared it to thunder. (Apparently Tim Samaras had the right idea.)

The scent of sulphur and the sound of bees, or the scent of rain and the sound of a waterfall — while the specifics of what you'll hear and smell inside a cyclone differ slightly, there's a strong consensus that it's loud.

You'll see 'everything as still as death'

Overcome by a strong scent of sulphur and raw earth and accosted by a sound like the roaring of a freight train, your senses would likely be overwhelmed from your theoretical vantage point within this theoretical funnel. Assuming you're still living and able to open your eyes, what do you see? We're not exactly sure. While we believe the inside of a tornado does contain an eye of tranquil emptiness without wind or swirling debris (per The Conversation), our best cameras don't fare well when met with cyclones (and few humans have lived to tell the tale). 

One such human, however, would be Will Keller from Kansas. In his 1930 interview, Keller described the eye of the storm: "Everything was as still as death," Keller told Time of what he saw as a cyclone passed directly over him. "I looked up and to my astonishment I saw right up into the heart of the tornado. There was a circular opening in the centre of the funnel ... The walls of this opening were of rotating clouds and the whole was made brilliantly visible by constant flashes of lightning, which zigzagged from side to side ... Around the lower rim of the great vortex small tornadoes were constantly forming and breaking away. These looked like tails as they writhed their way around the end of the funnel. It was these that made the hissing noise."

Most people are injured by degree; few are 'sucked inside' the vortex of the storm

Most people swept up by tornadoes were not sucked into a thirsty vortex that swallowed them whole, but carried or simply picked up before falling back to the ground. The National Weather Service published typical stories (albeit unverified) from people who claim to have been swept up by tornadoes. William of Smithville, Mississippi is one such individual who shared his experience from 2011: "I just stood there watching, waiting, looking at the TV and thinking this isn't gonna happen," William wrote. "About 30 seconds later, the power went out and the entire house shook for a minute and then stopped ... I was about to get up from my floor when the shaking began again ... I felt the pressure drop and as the shaking got louder, I got worried. Then it felt like the house exploded. I woke up one hour and a half later in a field a 1/4 mile away from the house with cuts to my body and a deep cut to my head and covered in blood dirt and grass."

The reality of what happens after you're swept up by a tornado? You get dropped, and probably hurt quite badly. For tips on how to stay safe during a tornado, visit the National Weather Service's tornado safety guidelines.