A tornado is a narrow, violently moving column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is intangible, tornadoes are difficult to detect unless they develop into condensation funnels composed of water droplets, dust, and debris. Tornadoes may be one of the most ferocious types of all atmospheric storms, we at Hedgethebook have witnessed it.
Characteristics Of Tornadoes
A massive cloud of dust and debris may be seen near the ground after a violent storm. Tornadoes can appear in various forms and sizes, although they are most often narrow funnels with a small cloud of debris nearby. Even well-experienced meteorologists might miss these tornadoes because they are difficult to spot. Tornados come in many different forms and magnitudes. But all tornadoes derive their energy from the same source: instability in the atmosphere.
How Tornadoes Form
Tornadoes can form when a supercell thunderstorm forms over land and then moves into an environment containing warm, moist air (like that found near oceans). Under these conditions, wind shear—variation in wind speed and direction with height—causes the air to destabilize and begins the process of tornado formation.
This unstable air is lifted into the atmosphere; it cools and condenses, forming cumulonimbus clouds (thunderclouds). The air continues to rise and expand as it moves through these thunderclouds; its speed and direction eventually change as it is pushed and pulled by strong winds. The speed of the wind determines whether a funnel cloud or tornado develops.
The convergence (meeting) of warm, moist air from above and more excellent, dryer air from below creates an area of rotation in the cloud; this act can form either a non-rotating updraft of a supercell thunderstorm. The updraft, rotating within the storm cloud, picks up dust and debris as it becomes a funnel cloud. A tornado may also develop in connection with a “mesocyclone” – an area of rotation found on the backside of some severe thunderstorms.
Types Of Tornadoes
Tornadoes can be broken down into four primary types:
Landspouts are tornadoes that form during the growth stage of non-supercell thunderstorms, meaning they do not originate from organized storm-scale rotation. Because they develop from clouds driven primarily by convective forcing, landspouts typically possess weaker winds than those found in supercell thunderstorms (the type of storm that most often produces tornadoes).
2. Smoked Tornado
A smoke tornado forms like a landspout; however, it does stem from organized storm-scale rotation. While its parent cloud is not a classic supercell, this small vortex may have characteristics resembling those of an actual tornado. Smoke tornadoes can be particularly difficult to spot due to their small size and short lifespan.
Typically, waterspouts develop over warm water and are most common along the Gulf Coast and East Coast of the United States. They develop from pre-existing thunderstorm clouds. Because they form over bodies of water, waterspouts typically do not possess the necessary strength to cause significant damage; however, one notable exception is an F5 tornado that struck suburban sections of Jarrell, Texas, in 1997.
4. Multiple Vortex Tornado
A violent tornado with two or more simultaneously rotating air funnels is classified as a multiple vortex tornado. These types of tornadoes can produce devastating damage and are responsible for most high-casualty events. Multiple-vortex tornadoes often display cyclic behavior. That is, one funnel may disappear while another appears, although simultaneous vortices are also possible.
How To Stay Safe During A Tornado
Much like the mile markers on a highway, tornadoes follow specific “rules” or guidelines that let us know what they can do and where they will most likely go. These rules are referred to as tornado parameters. Knowing these parameters is an essential part of staying safe during a storm.
Tornado Parameter #1: The speed of forwarding motion (of the entire tornado), measured in miles per hour, helps determine how long the path might be and where it’s headed. A strong thunderstorm can spawn several tornadoes at once, and each one may travel differently than another, so pay attention to the direction each is traveling.
Tornadoes travel more frequently from N-S, but that isn’t always the case. If you see one developing in your area, take shelter in an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. If there is no time to do so, lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression in the ground and cover your head with your hands.
Tornado Parameter #2: The width of its path shows how far out damage might be expected depending upon where it touches down. Tornadoes can have paths anywhere from 20 to 100+ yards wide but are frequently 50 yards or less when they touch down to the Earth’s surface.
As it gets close to you, you will start to hear the roar of the tornado. This sound may change from low rumbling to high-pitched noise like a freight train as it draws closer and is almost upon you.
Tornado Parameter #3: The height of its funnel indicates how strong the winds are at the ground level. The average tornado funnel is between 20 and 40 yards high. In terms of strength, a tornado funnel measures EF-0 up to EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale – one being the weakest and five being the strongest.
A flying debris cloud precedes a strong or violent tornado causing extensive damage in its wake, and it’s usually visible by either darkening skies or a large, thin, roiling cloud mass. At this point, there isn’t any safe place to be, so build an underground shelter or go into your bathtub with pillows over your head and under your arms for added protection.
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Myths Around Tornadoes
1) Tornadoes can’t happen at night
False – tornadoes happen most frequently between 3 pm and 9 pm. However, they can occur any time of day or night…even in the middle of the night like one did back on May 20th, 2010, that hit Tushka, Oklahoma, around 2 am.
2) Tornadoes only happen in some geographical regions
False – even though they’re more frequent in the Midwestern part of the United States (known as “Tornado Alley”), tornadoes can happen anywhere there are thunderstorms. Other geographical locations which see frequent tornado activity are Florida, Eastern Texas, Southeastern Oklahoma, and Southern Kansas, to name a few.
3) The strength of a tornado is measured by the F-Scale
False – The actual official way of measuring the strength of a tornado is called the Enhanced Fujita Scale or EF Scale. This scale scopes from zero to five, with zero being the weakest and five being the most violent.
4) All tornadoes are easily seen by their funnel clouds
False – unlike in Hollywood movies, not all types of tornadoes will be visible because either it hasn’t touched down yet or its outer circulation hasn’t gone very far out from its center. It may appear only as raindrops falling from heavy rainstorms underneath even though there’s rotation occurring somewhere in the cloud mas.