A Violent Tornado Hit Dallas Last Night, Throwing Debris 3 Miles High

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A destructive tornado touched down in the northeastern part of Dallas on Sunday night (Oct. 20), knocking out power for more than 150,000 residents and causing significant property damage. Though the tornado cut through a densely populated area, no storm-related deaths have been reported, according to the city's official website

"We should consider ourselves pretty fortunate that we didn’t lose any lives, no fatalities, and no serious injuries," said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson told The Washington Post. "Property damage, we’re not concerned about that... we’ve dealt with [that] before."

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The tornado was part of a series of severe storms reported from Texas to the Illinois-Missouri border yesterday, battering the region with hail, lightning, heavy rain and 70 mph (113 km/h) winds. The National Weather Service has yet to determine the intensity of the tornado that hit Dallas, but radar scans revealed powerful wind lifting debris more than 20,000 feet (6 kilometers) in the air, The Washington Post reported. (The height at which debris circulates is often indicative of a storm's strength.)

Sunday's violent maelstrom likely formed after a supercell thunderstorm — a violent storm with a deep, rotating updraft that can easily intensify into a tornado — collided with several smaller rainstorms north of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on Sunday night (Oct. 20), according to the Post. 

By 9 p.m. local time, radar scans of the storm revealed an ominous "debris ball" made of obliterated homes, businesses and other property, swirling about 2 miles high (3.2 km). Within the next 10 minutes, the debris reached a height of nearly 3 miles (4.8 km). The National Weather Service in Fort Worth labeled the storm "life threatening" and capable of "complete destruction."

The tornado did most of its damage in Dallas' Preston Hollows neighborhood — an affluent community that includes the home of former president George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. (They were both unharmed by the storm, a spokesperson said). Numerous homes, schools and businesses were destroyed by the storm, however, and the roads were littered with trees and downed power lines. Dozens of roads remain closed, and roughly 100 traffic lights are still without power, the city's website said. 

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Tornadoes form when winds of different temperatures and humidity meet. In the United States, this generally happens when warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meets cool, dry air moving southward from Canada. Warm air likes to rise, but can sometimes get trapped under a block of cold air when two storm fronts meet. Unable to move upward, the warm air starts to rotate instead, sometimes pulling the cool air below it and intensifying into a spinning wind funnel that stretches from the ground to the sky.

While this storm was remarkably strong, tornadoes are not an uncommon occurrence in the overall region. Dallas County has been hit with about 100 twisters in the last 140 years, the National Weather Service reports, including 19 in the last decade.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.