Run for Cover

A century of tornado photography.

Residents of Joplin, Mo., had a 24-minute warning before a massive twister ripped through the city on Sunday, killing at least 90 people and leaving a mile-wide path of destruction in its wake.

Uprooted homes and piles of debris are easily captured in photographs. But snapping an image of the tornado itself is trickier.“Even today, it’s almost impossible [for] a photograph or a movie to capture the true terrifying majesty of a tornado,” says Albert Theberge, the acting head of reference at the NOAA central library. “When you get up close and you see houses being ripped apart and debris falling into the sky and swirling around, you realize … these are pretty powerful forces that we’re dealing with. We poor humans are pretty puny by comparison.”

Humans, puny or not, have been trying to capture the greatness of these swirling disasters since at least the late 1880s. View a slide show  of some the earliest tornado images in existence.