updated 4/28/2011 5:00:10 PM ET 2011-04-28T21:00:10

A rare sideways tornado was captured on video as it spun off of a massive twister that roared through downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Thursday.

Just how rare are these sideways spinners?

"There's not even a settled-upon name for those," said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with the National Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Sideways funnel clouds are usually seen only with the biggest and baddest of tornadoes, and yesterday was no exception, Henson told OurAmazingPlanet. The huge tornado may have carved a path from downtown Tuscaloosa to downtown Birmingham, about 60 miles apart. The tornado appears to be a mile wide and seemed to be on the ground for more than two hours.

The exact death toll from this monster is unknown, but statewide, tornadoes killed an estimated 162 people, CNN reported.

These huge tornadoes are spinning so fast that some of that spin is shed, spawning sidekicks. That's about as much as scientists know about these sideways funnel clouds. They're too small to be replicated or studied in the lab. And despite forming from long-lasting tornadoes, sideways funnel clouds are fleeting, lasting maybe 20 seconds before dissolving, as the video shows.

These sideway tornadoes shouldn't be confused with multivortex tornadoes, Henson said.

A multiple vortex tornado is one that packs several vortices inside the main vortex. These extra funnels usually come in groups of two to five and last only a few minutes. Multiple funnel clouds are usually visible only early in a storm before they break off into tornadoes of their own.

A storm's circulations can live only up to a certain size and intensity, then it splits into two, three or four tornadoes, meteorologist Mike Smith, chief executive officer of Weather Data Services, a part of AccuWeather, told OurAmazingPlanet.

A multivortex tornado is hard to confirm without video. A signature of a multivortex tornado is intense damage where these funnel clouds touch down, and lesser damage where only the winds of the parent tornado swept through, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. This often creates a hit-or-miss pattern of destruction in the tornado's path.

Sideways funnel clouds are even harder to spot without video because they don't touch the ground.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Video: April storms break weather records

  1. Closed captioning of: April storms break weather records

    >>> back now from tuscaloosa, alabama. some more of the staggering numbers we have been telling you about. in the month of april, a record 453 tornadoes have been confirmed. this not counting wednesday's line of massive storms and when they tally those up, that will be larger, and remember, may is usually worse than april. our friend, weather channel meteorologist jim cantore who has been covering this has been kind enough to join us. you were here earlier. is it fair to say, at the center of this storm, at the center of hurricanes like katrina, it's the most energy mother nature can produce on the planet?

    >> i think it is. when you look add the biggest tornadoes, ef-4s and ef-5s, which we feel this destruction is, we're talking about those kinds of numbers. that makes up .4% of all the tornadoes. we have about 1,300 a year.

    >> you get stopped everywhere you go every day on the subject of weather, and wherever you go, whfrb you hear people talking, you know what i'm going to say, it didn't used to be like this. what's going on? what are we doing that's causing it? it seems newly virulent and violent all across the country.

    >> when you go back, you look for evidence of something. sometimes the most obvious things don't hit you until they're right there in front of your face. if we have a warmer earth, and the purpose of the jetstream is to help equalize all that, because it's warmer, it's going to have to work harder. that in addition to the fact we have so much snuinstability in april, heat and humidity, cause this monster, monster april.

    >> looking for a way to describe away what happened here.

    >> it's hard to do that.

    >> thank you for your ongoing


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