How Do Tornadoes Form?

Tornado in Kansas

How do tornadoes form? That is pretty easy to answer since there has been a large amount of study into the subject. They are usually the extreme result of a supercell thunderstorm. During the storm cold air and warm air combine in a set pattern: the cold air drops as the warm air rises. The warm air eventually twists into a spiral and forms the funnel cloud that we all associate with a tornado.

The formation of a tornado follows a clear set of steps. First there a change in wind direction and an increase in wind speed. This change occurs at an increasing altitude and creates an invisible horizontal spinning effect in the lower atmosphere. Next, rising air within the thunderstorm’s updraft tilts the rotating air from horizontal to vertical. Third, an area of rotation, 3-10 km wide is contained within a vast majority of the storm. This is where the strongest tornadoes form. Then a lower cloud base in the center of the storm becomes a rotating wall cloud. This area can be nearly rain-free. Lastly, a tornado develops and starts to wreak its destruction.

Once a tornado has formed, it follows a predictable life cycle. First, the mesocyclone(rotating air), along with the rear flank downdraft( RFD), starts moving towards the ground. A small funnel appears to build up at the bottom of a wall cloud. As the RFD reaches the ground, the surrounding dirt rises up, causing damage even to heavy objects. The funnel touches the ground immediately after the RFD, forming a tornado.

During the next stage the tornado’s main source of energy, the RFD, begins to cool. The distance the tornado covers, depends on the rate at which the RFD cools. If the RFD cannot further provide any more warm air to the tornado, it begins to die.

Lastly, with the tornado’s warm air supply cut, the vortex begins to weaken and shrivel away. As the tornado weakens, the mesocyclone also starts to dissipate, but a new mesocyclone can start very close to the dying one. Those are the basics of tornado formation and life.

We have written many articles about tornado for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the biggest tornado, and here’s an article about the Tornado Alley.

If you’d like more info on tornado, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

What Are Tornadoes?

Tornado at Union City, Oklahoma Credit: NOAA Photo Library

Also known as a twister, a tornado is a rotating column of air that can cause a tremendous amount of damage on the ground. Tornadoes can very in size from harmless dust devils to devastating twisters with wind speeds greater than 450 km/h.

A tornado looks like a swirling funnel of cloud that stretches from bottom of the clouds down to the ground. Depending on the power of the tornado, there might be a swirling cloud of debris down at the ground, where it’s tearing stuff up. Some tornadoes can look like thin white ropes that stretch from the sky down to the ground, and only destroy a thin patch of ground. Others can be very wide, as much as 4 km across, and leave a trail of destruction for hundreds of kilometers.

Tornadoes appear out of special thunderstorms known as supercells. They contain a region of organized rotation in the atmosphere a few kilometers across. Rainfall within the storm can drag down an area of this rotating atmosphere, to bring it closer to the ground. As it approaches the ground, conservation of momentum causes the wind speed to increase until it’s rotating quickly – this is when tornadoes cause the most damage. After a while the tornado’s source of warm air is choked off, and it dissipates.

When a tornado forms over water, it’s called a waterspout. These can be quite common in the Florida Keys and the northern Adriatic Sea. Most are harmless, like dust devils, but powerful waterspouts can be driven by thunderstorms and be quite dangerous.

Scientists have several scales for measuring the strength and speed of tornadoes. The most well known is the Fujita scale, which ranks tornadoes by the amount of damage they do. A F0 tornado damages trees, but that’s about it, while the most powerful F5 tornado can tear buildings off their foundations. Another scale is known as the TORRO scale, which ranges from T0 to T11. In the United States, 80% of tornadoes are F0, and only 1% are the more violent F4 or F5 twisters.

Although they can form anywhere in the world, tornadoes are mostly found in North America, in a region called Tornado Alley. The United States has the most tornadoes of any country in the world; 4 times as many as the entire continent of Europe. The country gets about 1,200 tornadoes a year.

We have written many articles about the tornado for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the biggest tornado, and here’s an article about how tornadoes are formed.

If you’d like more info on tornadoes, check out the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.