Q:

What causes a tornado to form?

A:

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, tornadoes form when warm air creates a rotating updraft in a powerful thunderstorm. When winds blow in sharply different directions or at different speeds in these storms, they can set up a rotation that feeds on itself, creating a condition called a mesocyclone. When this construct rotates and touches the ground, it becomes a tornado.

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Tornadoes can form quickly and without warning, and their destructive nature makes them hard to study. Any time thunderstorms occur in conditions where temperatures at the ground are substantially warmer than those aloft, the storms can be strong enough to create one or more tornadoes.

It can be difficult to forecast a tornado, but Doppler radar systems are a valuable tool for determining where and when one is about to occur. Doppler systems can detect wind shear, or divergences in wind direction and speed. An area where the winds are blowing strongly in different directions creates a distinctive "hook echo" on the radar. This can quickly form the rotation necessary to suck warm, moist air up into the upper layers of the storm, creating the energy necessary to turn the rotation into a mesocyclone and then a tornado.

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Related Questions

  • Q:

    What causes a tornado?

    A:

    Strong warm updrafts carrying large amounts of moisture interacting with fast-moving cool, dry winds above cause tornadoes when the two air currents begin to swirl around each other and reorient toward the ground. The moist updraft is always of a type that forms large storm clouds as it ascends and the water vapor in it condenses.

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  • Q:

    How does a fire tornado form?

    A:

    Fire tornadoes form when combustible gases ignite in windy conditions. According to the Mother Nature Network, most fire tornadoes spawn from wildfires. The center of a fire tornado is a column of flaming gas up to 9 feet in diameter. A whirling column of fresh air circulates around the fiery core, feeding it fresh oxygen and sustaining the blaze.

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  • Q:

    How long does it take a tornado to form and touch the ground?

    A:

    Tornadoes can form extremely quickly under the right conditions, forming and touching the ground within minutes. It may take some time for the proper rotation to form high in the thunderstorm, but a funnel cloud can drop from the sky with very little warning.

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  • Q:

    What causes tornadoes to form?

    A:

    Tornadoes form when unstable air in a thunderstorm creates a horizontal rotation in the clouds and strong downdrafts draw that vortex down to the ground. Overlapping fronts can trigger the wind shear necessary to initiate a tornado's rotation, which is why meteorologists issue watches whenever severe thunderstorms threaten. Tornadoes can form with very little notice and are particularly unpredictable and dangerous weather events.

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