The How Tornadoes work.


How do tornadoes work?

Tornadoes are one of the most interesting, frightening, and amazing phenomenon on Earth. They have been the subject of award-winning movies, real life disasters and there are thousands of people who dedicate their lives to chasing after these mysterious monsters to learn more about them and find out just how they work.

Tornadoes seem to be giant swirling clouds that can coast across miles and miles of land within seconds, swallowing anything in its path. The sad truth is that sometimes this is the case and with the most vicious tornadoes, they can reach speeds of 318mph and can measure miles and miles across. However, tornadoes can also be just small funnels that actually descend from the cloud above them, instead of starting from the ground, which is so often the optical illusion they give. Small tornadoes are generally nothing to be feared and don’t cause much, if any, damage. They could even be viewed from your front porch just a hundred meters away.

It’s mostly these types of tornadoes that the United States sees every year, mostly in areas such as Tornado Alley that includes states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. The United States actually sees over a thousand tornadoes a year on average. While it’s mostly towns that have few people living in them and areas that have large, flat plains that see most of the tornadoes in the United States, sometimes a devastating twister does touch down into large cities. The Tri-State Twister that took 695 lives in 1925 is still one of the most talked-about tornadoes today.

How Tornadoes Form

If you want to get a visual to understand how tornadoes form, you can fill up your bathtub and then pull the plug. The water will start to fall down the drain slowly at first but as more continues to fall, it will pick up speed and soon, you will be able to see a whirlpool taking shape below the surface of the water. This is basically the same way that a tornado forms, only a tornado forms from air instead of from water. In order for the vortex, or whirlpool, to form the water needs to begin rotating as it falls down the drain. It will do this because as the other particles of water are being pushed toward the drain, they push other particles out of their way. Once this deflection has occurred, one particle will spiral and it will cause a chain reaction, causing all the other particles to spiral as well, creating the rotating effect that creates the vortex.

Tornadoes are much like the vortexes you will see in your bathtub or sink. They begin at areas along the Earth’s surface that are low-pressure areas. It is actually these areas that control many of the Earth’s wind patterns. These areas take in cooler, higher-pressure area from the areas around it and when that cooler air is brought in, it forces the lower-pressure air to rise. Once the low-pressure air rises it gets hotter and is then is forced up by the air that is behind it and also rising. This is why the air pressure in the center of a tornado is considerably lower than the air that’s around it, about 10% lower. The cooler air around the hot air begins to rush into the tornado even faster, causing the air to rotate even more and the tornado to pick up speed.

However, these low-pressure centers around the Earth’s surface don’t solely dictate when a tornado will appear and a tornado will never show up unexpectedly on a seemingly normal and calm day. Tornadoes are actually a product of thunderstorms and come from a volatile situation that is only made more so by the creation of a tornado. Tornadoes come from these storms because it is during these conditions that there is already warm, low-pressure air moving upwards to start the formation of a tornado.

It’s actually the clouds themselves during a thunderstorm that begin the formation of a tornado. These clouds of course, form no differently than other clouds – warm air from the earth rises and cools in the air. Once it’s cooled, it forms a shape high above the ground and makes a cloud. But it’s when the flow of warm air from the Earth’s surface continues once the cloud has formed it begins to grow larger and larger and can reach over 40,000 feet. Once a cloud is this large, it encroaches over into the troposphere, which is the bottommost level of the atmosphere. The cloud meanwhile will also be creating energy and in a particularly violent thunderstorm, the cloud will create so much energy that there is an updraft created from the ground. This energy comes from when the air particles are condensed to make the cloud. As each particle of air condenses it heats up and releases about 600 calories of heat. This combined with the kinetic energy of air moving up and down allows one thunderstorm to produce approximately 10,000,000 kilowatts of energy!

It’s when the thunderstorm turns into a supercell thunderstorm that the danger of a tornado becomes apparent. These storms have extremely strong updrafts and when they become powerful enough, they create a vortex, just as the one we talked about in the bathtub. However this vortex is not the actual tornado itself but is instead called a mesocyclone. These are usually about 2 to 6 miles wide and if a mesocyclone forms, there’s about a 50% chance that a tornado will also form within 30 minutes.

Route and Disintegration of Tornadoes

Many tornadoes do consist of just one vortex or funnel but many tornadoes are created from multiple-section vortices and these small storms rotate around the tornadoes center. These are known as storms-within-a-storm. These storms generally are smaller than storms that consist of only one vortex however, they are extremely fast and have rotation speeds that could do some damage if they were to touch down. Both large vortexes and smaller storms can reach speeds of 200 to 300 mph and it is this speed that tears through cars, homes, and buildings. How long one particular tornado will remain on the ground for cannot be known upon sight but smaller storms do tend to last only a few minutes and often cover no more than a mile or less of ground. However, large storms can continue for hours and can move across a hundred miles of land.

The parent thundercloud of the tornado is the thundercloud from which the tornado formed and it is this parent cloud that will determine the route of the tornado. However tornadoes don’t always follow one smooth path. They sometimes appear to hop or skip over certain things only to resume the same path seconds later. These hops or skips are due to certain things that have interfered with the vortex. Going back to the bathtub example, if you were to place your finger in the middle of the whirlpool after it was formed, the whirlpool would dissipate for a moment, until it made the finger part of the vortex when it would then resume around your finger. The same thing will happen with a tornado. If there is something large and powerful enough to interfere with it, the vortex will seemingly collapse but will soon pick right back up where it left off.

So if you ever find yourself facing a tornado, how exactly do you know when it will die off? There are many different theories but eventually, it all comes back to the parent thundercloud and the action taking place within it. In order for a tornado to survive, it must have rotation and an instable environment. If the airflow stops or is interrupted, or if hot and cold air comes into balance, knocking out the instability, the tornado will stop. Often, there is rain after a tornado and it is actually the rain that causes the tornado to die out. This is because the rain causes a huge surge of cold air to fall out of the cloud, taking away both the moisture from the tornado as well as the instable balance of hot and cold air. And if you find yourself in a tornado and are wondering just how bad it really is how can you tell? There’s an easy rating system that has been developed so that meteorologists can easily classify just how bad a tornado really was.

The Tornado Rating System

Classifying tornadoes into their own special rating system allows meteorologists the chance to warn people of when tornadoes are coming, how forceful they will be, and what precautions need to be taken to prepare for them. Without being able to classify tornadoes, we really would be at their mercy, with no real indication of what kind of damage could be expected when they were through. T. Theodore Fujita first created the tornado rating system, which is named the Fujita Scale. This was the scale that was used to classify tornadoes until 2007 when the Enhanced Fujita Scale came into place.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale works very similarly to the original and it still separates tornadoes into 6 different categories depending on wind speed. The Enhanced Fujita Scale however also assigns a certain number (1-28) for different items such as small barns, service station canopy, and free-standing towers to determine what the tornado is capable of destroying. Often, meteorologists and other researchers will use a combination of both the Fujita Scale and the Enhanced Fujita Scale to classify tornadoes. Generally, they will use the Fujita Scale for an estimate and for details such as wind speeds and items destroyed, they will use the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

The original Fujita Scale has 6 different categories of tornadoes. These are:

  • FO: These tornadoes have wind speeds of 40-72mph. These storms cause some light damage and can damage signposts, and cause branches to be torn off trees. Small trees with weak roots may also be uprooted.
  • F1: These tornadoes have wind speeds of 73-112mph. These storms are classified as causing moderate damage. Motorists can be swept off the road, roofs and siding can be torn off homes and mobile homes are at an increased risk for being swept up or knocked off their foundation.
  • F2: These winds travel at about 113-157mph. Considerable damage is left in the wake of these storms as entire roofs can be torn off homes, mobile homes will be completely destroyed, and trees with well-established roots will be uprooted.
  • F3: These storms have winds that travel at 158-206 and they are said to cause severe damage including entire trains being derailed, and forests being destroyed due to the number of trees that are ripped out of the ground.
  • F4: These winds go at from 207-260mph and cause devastating damage. These winds can lift entire houses off of their foundations and can send cars flying through the air.
  • F5: These are the worst kinds of tornadoes with winds traveling at 261-318mph. Homes will not only be ripped from their foundation but will also be completely destroyed and not even steel-constructed buildings are safe from these storms.


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