Wind Basics Hurricane Tornado Wind / Hail Thunderstorm History / U.S. Hurricane Preparation Call Center Certification

[ Tornado ]

Tornadoes are the most violent of all atmospheric storms. Essentially a tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, you can't always see a tornado. A visible sign of the tornado, a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, sometimes forms and may or may not touch the ground during the tornado lifecycle. Dust and debris in the rotating column also make a tornado visible and confirm its presence.

There are two types of tornadoes: those that come from a supercell thunderstorm, and those that do not. Tornadoes that form from a supercell thunderstorm are the most common, and often the most dangerous. A supercell is a long-lived (greater than 1 hour) and highly organized storm feeding off an updraft (a rising current of air) that is tilted and rotating. This rotating updraft - as large as 10 miles in diameter and up to 50,000 feet tall - can be present as much as 20 to 60 minutes before a tornado forms. Scientists call this rotation a mesocyclone when it is detected by Doppler radar. The tornado is a very small extension of this larger rotation. Most large and violent tornadoes come from supercells.

Non-supercell tornadoes are circulations that form without a rotating updraft. One non-supercell tornado is the gustnado, a whirl of dust or debris at or near the ground with no condensation funnel, which forms along the gust front of a storm. Another non-supercell tornado is a landspout. A landspout is a tornado with a narrow, rope-like condensation funnel that forms when the thunderstorm cloud is still growing and there is no rotating updraft - the spinning motion originates near the ground. Damage from these types of tornadoes tends to be F2 or less.

A rotating updraft is a key to the development of a supercell, and eventually a tornado. There are many ideas about how this rotation begins. One way a column of air can begin to rotate is from wind shear - when winds at two different levels above the ground blow at different speeds or in different directions. An example of wind shear that can eventually create a tornado is when winds at ground level, often slowed down by friction with the earth's surface, come from the southwest at 5 mph. But higher up, at 5000 feet above the same location, the winds are blowing from the southeast at 25 mph! An invisible "tube" of air begins to rotate horizontally. Rising air within the thunderstorm tilts the rotating air from horizontal to vertical - now the area of rotation extends through much of the storm. Once the updraft is rotating and being fed by warm, moist air flowing in at ground level, a tornado can form.

A non-supercell tornado does not form from organized storm-scale rotation. These tornadoes form from a vertically spinning parcel of air already occurring near the ground, about 1-10 km in diameter, that is caused by wind shear from a warm, cold, or sea breeze front, or a dryline. When an updraft moves over the spinning, and stretches it, a tornado can form.

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