New research may alter what we know about how tornadoes form | Science News for Students

New research may alter what we know about how tornadoes form

As the climate changes, twister behavior on the ground is changing, as well
Jan 18, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a photo of a tornado in El Reno,Oklahoma

Scientists are rethinking how tornadoes form thanks in part to radar data and images of this tornado that struck El Reno, Okla., on May 31, 2013.

Nick Nolte/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tornadoes might form from the ground up, rather than the top down.   

That could seem unexpected. Many people picture tornadoes forming from funnel clouds that eventually extend to the ground, said Jana Houser. She spoke December 13 in a news conference, here, at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Houser is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Ohio in Athens. She and her colleagues have new data that upend this “top-down” idea of how tornadoes form.  

Understanding how tornadoes form is important. That’s especially true in the United States, where the storms seem to be getting more intense. 

Thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes are called supercells. These form where powerful currents of warm, moist air get trapped beneath layers of colder, drier air. Forecasters typically scan supercells for telltale signs of that a tornado may be developing.  

The other necessary ingredient for tornadoes to form is wind shear. Wind shear occurs when there are differences in wind speed at different levels above the ground. This can cause air masses to rotate horizontally. Air rising through the supercell can then tip the rotation from horizontal to vertical. This creates conditions ripe for a tornado. 

Scientists have long debated where the wind rotations begin that will lead to twisters. That’s partly because the moment of twister birth remains a mystery. Tornadoes can form within 30 to 90 seconds. So studying how they start often is limited by not getting to the right place at the right time. Houser’s team was no exception, she said.  

But a rapid-scanning Doppler radar helped her team capture the birth of four tornadoes. Mounted at the back of a truck, the radar collected data every 16 seconds.  

Two of the tornadoes struck near El Reno, Okla. One formed on May 24, 2011. Another struck on May 31, 2013. Data for the first of those showed that winds began rotating at once at multiple levels in the atmosphere. They hadn’t started high up and then moved downward.  

For the May 2013 storm, tornado-strength rotation began about 20 meters (66 feet) above the ground. By 60 seconds later, the rotation was at a height of about 3.5 kilometers (10,500 feet). Still and video images of the 2013 storm also revealed a funnel near the ground before the radar was able to capture it.  

That’s “a pretty compelling finding,” says Leigh Orf. He is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But the 2013 twister was such an “unusual, rare, weird, bizarre storm,” he says. “There are likely different modes” of how tornadoes form.  

Orf notes that his own simulations of the 2011 storm match Houser’s finding. His showed that winds began spinning at multiple levels in the atmosphere at once. 

Staying power 

Twisters are staying on the ground longer, on average, than they did a few decades ago. That gives tornadoes more time to do damage. James Elsner reported this in a separate study at the AGU meeting. Elsner is an atmospheric scientist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. His study was also published online November 10 at This website posts research papers on earth science, often before they are formally published. 

Elsner and his colleagues calculated the overall power released by U.S. tornadoes. That power has increased at a rate of about 5.5 percent per year, they report.  

an aerial photo of the path of destruction left behind by a tornado in Alabama
Tornado paths, like this one through part of Alabama, have become longer by an average of 130 kilometers (81 miles) since 1994.
National Weather Service

They looked at data from nearly 28,000 tornadoes reported from 1994 to 2016. The overall number of tornadoes hadn’t increased. But twisters have been forming in bigger bunches. And these bunches have a higher share of tornadoes rated at the highest intensities, EF4 and EF5. (Tornadoes are ranked on the Enhanced-Fujita scale. EF4 twisters have wind speeds of 267 to 322 kilometers — 166 to 200 miles — per hour. EF5 tornadoes have winds above 322 kilometers per hour.) 

That shift is linked to rising ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Caribbean Sea, Elsner says. Global warming makes more heat and moisture available in the atmosphere. That, he says, means tornadoes can pack a more powerful punch.

Power Words

air masses     Large volumes of air, sometimes covering many hundreds or thousands of square kilometers (square miles), that typically have a consistent temperature or water-vapor content. Air masses are often classified by their source, such as continental, arctic or tropical. Air masses and other weather systems are steered across Earth’s surface by jet streams and by differences in atmospheric pressure.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

average     (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.

Caribbean     The name of a sea that runs from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to Mexico and Central American nations in the West, and from the southern coasts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico down to the northern coasts of Venezuela and Brazil. The term is also used to refer to the culture of nations that border on or are islands in the sea.

cloud      (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

current     A fluid — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction.

eartharXiv     A website that posts research papers — often before they are formally published — in the field of earth science. Anyone can read a posted paper at no charge.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

horizontal     A line or plane that runs left to right, much as the horizon appears to do when gazing into the distance.

moisture     Small amounts of water present in the air, as vapor. It can also be present as a liquid, such as water droplets condensed on the inside of a window, or dampness present in clothing or soil.

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

radar     A system for calculating the position, distance or other important characteristic of a distant object. It works by sending out periodic radio waves that bounce off of the object and then measuring how long it takes that bounced signal to return. Radar can detect moving objects, like airplanes. It also can be used to map the shape of land — even land covered by ice.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

simulation     (v. simulate) An analysis, often made using a computer, of some conditions, functions or appearance of a physical system. A computer program would do this by using mathematical operations that can describe the system and how it might change over time or in response to different anticipated situations.

spawn     To quickly cause something to come into being.

supercell     (in atmospheric science) A weather system with strong rotating clouds that is fueled by a long-lasting updraft of air. Such systems can generate hail — or even tornadoes.

tornado     A violently rotating column of air extending from the ground to a thunderstorm above.

vertical     A term for the direction of a line or plane that runs up and down, as the vertical post for a streetlight does. It’s the opposite of horizontal, which would run parallel to the ground.

wind shear     A turning of the winds or a change in their speed with height.


Meeting: J. Houser et al. Rapid-scan mobile radar observations of tornadogenesis. American Geophysical Union fall meeting, Washington, D.C., December 14, 2018.

Meeting: J. Elsner. Increasingly powerful tornadoes. American Geophysical Union fall meeting, Washington, D.C., December 12, 2018.

Journal:​ ​​ J. Elsner et al. Increasingly powerful tornadoes in the United States. EarthArXiv:10.31223. Posted online November 10, 2018.