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Ekstrom Library

Government Resources: Public Safety: Tornadoes

Kentucky Tornadoes

How Do Tornadoes Form?

How do tornadoes form? The classic answer--"warm moist Gulf air meets cold Canadian air and dry air from the Rockies"--is a gross oversimplification. Most thunderstorms that form under those conditions (near warm fronts, cold fronts and drylines respectively) never make tornadoes. Even when the large-scale environment is extremely favorable for tornadic thunderstorms, as in an SPC "High Risk" outlook, not every thunderstorm spawns a tornado. The truth is that we don't fully understand. The most destructive and deadly tornadoes occur from supercells--which are rotating thunderstorms with a well-defined radar circulation called a mesocyclone. [Supercells can also produce damaging hail, severe non-tornadic winds, unusually frequent lightning, and flash floods.] Tornado formation is believed to be dictated mainly by things which happen on the storm scale, in and around the mesocyclone. Recent theories and results from the VORTEX programs suggest that once a mesocyclone is underway, tornado development is related to temperature changes across the edge of downdraft air wrapping around the mesocyclone (the occlusion downdraft). Mathematical modeling studies of tornado formation also indicate that it can happen without such temperature patterns; and in fact, very little temperature variation was observed near some of the most destructive tornadoes in history on 3 May 1999. NOAA

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