14 Questions and Answers About Tornadoes

The second worst tornado ever devastated the little town of Moore, Oklahoma yesterday, killing scores of people.

Two Mile wide tornado devastates Oklahoma City Area. Pic by CNN

Two Mile wide tornado devastates Oklahoma City Area. Pic by CNN

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction with wind speeds of up to 300 mph. They can destroy large buildings, uproot trees and hurl vehicles hundreds of yards. They can also drive straw into trees. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide to 50 miles long. In an average year, 1000 tornadoes are reported nationwide.

With extreme weather, emergency disaster’s happen all the time, so you need survival food when the weather turns ugly. By taking special precautions, you’ll be much more likely to stay safe.

1. How do tornadoes form?

Most tornadoes form from thunderstorms. You need warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cool, dry air from Canada. When these two air masses meet, they create instability in the atmosphere. A change in wind direction and an increase in wind speed with increasing height creates an invisible, horizontal spinning effect in the lower atmosphere. Rising air within the updraft tilts the rotating air from horizontal to vertical. An area of rotation, 2-6 miles wide, now extends through much of the storm. Most strong and violent tornadoes form within this area of strong rotation.
Tornado Formation Tornado Formation Tornado Formation

2. What is a funnel cloud?

A funnel cloud is a rotating cone-shaped column of air extending downward from the base of a thunderstorm, but not touching the ground. When it reaches the ground it is called a tornado.

3. How do tornadoes stop?

It is not fully understood about how exactly tornadoes form, grow and die. Tornado researchers are still trying to solve the tornado puzzle, but for every piece that seems to fit they often uncover new pieces that need to be studied.

4. What is a supercell thunderstorm?

A supercell thunderstorm is a long-lived thunderstorm whose updrafts and downdrafts are in near balance. These storms have the greatest tendency to produce tornadoes that stay on the ground for long periods of time. Supercell thunderstorms can produce violent tornadoes with winds exceeding 200 mph.

5. What is a mesocyclone?

A mesocyclone is a rotating vortex of air within a supercell thunderstorm. Mesocyclones do not always produce tornadoes.

6. What is a wall cloud?

A wall cloud is an abrupt lowering of a rain-free cumulonimbus base into a low-hanging accessory cloud. A wall cloud is usually situated in the southwest portion of the storm. A rotating wall cloud usually develops before tornadoes or funnel clouds.

7. What is a waterspout?

A waterspout is just a weak tornado that forms over water. They are most common along the Gulf Coast. Waterspouts can sometimes move inland, becoming tornadoes causing damage and injuries.

8. What is hail?

Hail is created when small water droplets are caught in the updraft of a thunderstorm. These water droplets are lifted higher and higher into the sky until they freeze into ice. Once they become heavy, they will start to fall. If the smaller hailstones get caught in the updraft again, they will get more water on them and get lifted higher in the sky and get bigger. Once they get lifted again, they freeze and fall. This happens over and over again until the hailstone is too heavy and then falls to the ground.

9. What is the largest hailstone recorded in the United States?

According to the National Weather Service, the largest hailstone is 8 inches in diameter and weighs approximately 2 pounds. It fell in Vivian, South Dakota on July 23, 2010.

10. What is a gustnado?

A gustnado is a short-lived, relatively weak whirlwind that forms along a gust front. A gust front is the surge of very gusty winds at the leading edge of a thunderstorm’s outflow of air. Gustnadoes are not tornadoes. They do not connect with any cloud-base rotation. But because gustnadoes often have a spinning dust cloud at ground level, they are sometimes wrongly reported as tornadoes. Gustnadoes can do minor damage.

11. What is a landspout?

A landspout is a very weak tornado that is not associated with a wall cloud or a mesocyclone. It is the land equivalent of a waterspout.

12. When are tornadoes most likely to occur?

Tornadoes can happen at any time of the year and at any time of the day. In the southern states, peak tornado season is from March through May. Peak times for tornadoes in the northern states are during the summer. A few southern states have a second peak time for tornado outbreaks in the fall. Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.

13. Where are tornadoes most likely to occur?

The geography of the central part of the United States, known as the Great Plains, is suited to bring all of the ingredients together to forms tornadoes. More than 500 tornadoes typically occur in this area every year and are why it is commonly known as “Tornado Alley”. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana all make up Tornado Alley.

14. Tornado Lingo

TORNADO WATCH – Tornadoes are possible in your area. Stay tuned to the radio or television news.

TORNADO WARNING – A tornado is either on the ground or has been detected by Doppler radar. Seek shelter immediately!

Click Here to see if there are any active warnings in your area.

A primer from Weather Whiz Kids.

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Posted by on May 21, 2013. Filed under Advice,COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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3 Responses to 14 Questions and Answers About Tornadoes

  1. newageluddite Reply

    March 3, 2012 at 1:49 am

    “A wall cloud is an abrupt lowering of a rain-free cumulonimbus base into a low-hanging accessory cloud.” That’s accurate as far as it goes; but here in Oklahoma sighting a wall cloud is usually accompanied by someone saying; “Oh. Sweet. Jesus.” It may be raining. Or not. But the lower portion of the western sky has just disappeared; eaten by a roiling mass of grey-black that reaches to the ground,covers the horizon from north to south, is visibly moving towards you, and contains Death. “Oh sinnerman; where you gonna run to?” runs through your head; or at least through mine. Now would be a good time to be somewhere else. You may just get a good dousing; or, if you were in Joplin, MO last year, it might contain a “catastrophic EF5 multiple-vortex tornado”. A multiple-vortex tornado is such a big mother it has several funnels in existence simultaneously. Joplin was hit by up to 6 funnels dancing a ballet of death over a mile wide and 6 miles long. To get an idea of the destruction, go to a lower class section of a city and drive for one mile from south to north. Then go back one/half mile and drive east for six miles, and imagine that almost everything around you, 1/2 mile in either direction, is either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Be very grateful you were somewhere else last May 22.
    There may be a reason why the center of Tornado Alley is also the buckle of the Bible belt.

  2. rowdy62 Reply

    May 21, 2013 at 9:07 am

    This is a terrible, terrible thing to happen. Those poor people. I’ve been through a couple of hurricanes, but never, thankfully, a tornado.

  3. Norman Rampart Reply

    May 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    I once witnessed a tornado over Manchester as a teenager. I was high up on the Pennines with a few pals. It was a very small tornado as Britain generally doesn’t suffer from them, but quite spectacular to a few teenage boys.

    Of course we had no idea how devastating the bloody things can be.

    All hearts must go out to the victims and their families. That’s the very least that can be said.

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