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U.S. Weather Phenomena

What causes Tornadoes?


Thunderstorms develop in warm, moist air in advance of eastward-moving cold fronts. These thunderstorms often produce large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Tornadoes in the winter and early spring are often associated with strong, frontal systems that form in the Central States and move east. Occasionally, large outbreaks of tornadoes occur with this type of weather pattern. Several states may be affected by numerous severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

During the spring in the Central Plains, thunderstorms frequently develop along a "dryline," which separates very warm, moist air to the east from hot, dry air to the west. Tornado-producing thunderstorms may form as the dryline moves east during the afternoon hours.

Along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, in the Texas panhandle, and in the southern High Plains, thunderstorms frequently form as air near the ground flows "upslope" toward higher terrain. If other favorable conditions exist, these thunderstorms can produce tornadoes.

Tornadoes occasionally accompany tropical storms and hurricanes that move over land. Tornadoes are most common to the right and ahead of the path of the storm center as it comes onshore.


How Do Tornadoes Form?
Before thunderstorms develop, 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 thunderstorm 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. 

A lower cloud base in the center of the photograph identifies an area of rotation known as a rotating wall cloud. This area is often nearly rain-free. Note rain in the background.

Moments later a strong tornado develops in this area. Softball-size hail and damaging "straight-line" winds also occurred with this storm.

 
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Document Information
Source: National Weather Service - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Last modified: 20100308
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