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Energy Density

A tornado is the most destructive force in nature; that doesn't mean it has the most energy. Thunderstorms which produce tornadoes can have 40,000 times as much energy as a tornado! Tornadoes are so destructive because they have a higher energy density than thunderstorms; the energy is concentrated in a small area while the energy in a thunderstorm is spread-out over a much greater area.

Energy and energy density can be compared to weight and force. Energy density is energy per unit volume and force is weight per unit area. If a 100 pound person in flat shoes stepped on your foot, you'd feel it. If the same person stepped on your foot while wearing very narrow high-heels, you might end up with a broken toe. That's because the person's weight is concentrated in a small area. The same holds with tornadoes. They may not have as much total energy as thunderstorms, but the energy they do have is concentrated in a very small area. So small, in fact, that tornadoes have destroyed houses while not damaging the neighbors.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA