In comparison with a cyclone or hurricane, a tornado covers a much smaller area but can be violent and destructive. The atmospheric conditions required for the formation of a tornado include great thermal instability, high humidity, and the convergence of warm, moist air at low levels with cooler, drier air aloft. Although tornadoes have occurred on every continent except Antarctica, they are most common in the continental United States, where tornadoes typically form over the central and southern plains, the Ohio valley, and the Gulf states. The area where the most violent storms commonly occur in the United States is known as Tornado Alley, which is usually understood to encompass the plains from N central Texas north to the Dakotas, with the peak frequency located in Oklahoma. A tornado typically travels in a northeasterly direction with a speed of 20 to 40 mi (32-64 km) per hr, but tornadoes have be reported to move in a variety of directions and as fast as 73 mi (117 km) per hr—or to hover in one place. The length of a tornado's path along the ground varies from less than one mile to several hundred. Tornadoes occurring over water are called waterspouts.
See J. Verkaik and A. Verkaik, Under the Whirlwind: Everything You Need to Know about Tornadoes but Didn't Know Who to Ask (1998); H. B. Bluestein, Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains (1999).
A tornado is a violent, rotating column of air which is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. Tornadoes come in many sizes but are typically in the form of a visible condensation funnel, whose narrow end touches the earth and is often encircled by a cloud of debris.
Most tornadoes have wind speeds between 40 mph (64 km/h) and 110 mph (177 km/h), are approximately 250 feet (75 m) across, and travel a few miles (several kilometers) before dissipating. Some attain wind speeds of more than 300 mph (480 km/h), stretch more than a mile (1.6 km) across, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles (more than 100 km).
Although tornadoes have been observed on every continent except Antarctica, most occur in the United States. They also commonly occur in southern Canada, south-central and eastern Asia, east-central South America, Southern Africa, northwestern and southeast Europe, western and southeastern Australia, and New Zealand.
Small, relatively weak landspouts may only be visible as a small swirl of dust on the ground. While the condensation funnel may not extend all the way to the ground, if associated surface winds are greater than 40 mph (64 km/h), the circulation is considered a tornado. A tornado with a nearly cylindrical profile and relative low height is sometimes referred to as a stovepipe tornado. Large single-vortex tornadoes can look like large wedges stuck into the ground, and so are known as wedge tornadoes or wedges. The stovepipe classification is also used for this type of tornado, if it otherwise fits that profile. A wedge can be so wide that it appears to be a block of dark clouds, wider than the distance from the cloud base to the ground. Even experienced storm observers may not be able to tell the difference between a low-hanging cloud and a wedge tornado from a distance. Many, but not all major tornadoes are wedges.
Tornadoes in the dissipating stage can resemble narrow tubes or ropes, and often curl or twist into complex shapes. These tornadoes are said to be roping out, or becoming a rope tornado. Multiple-vortex tornadoes can appear as a family of swirls circling a common center, or may be completely obscured by condensation, dust, and debris, appearing to be a single funnel.
In addition to these appearances, tornadoes may be obscured completely by rain or dust. These tornadoes are especially dangerous, as even experienced meteorologists might not spot them.
In terms of path length, the Tri-State Tornado, which affected parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925, was officially on the ground continuously for 219 miles (352 km). Many tornadoes which appear to have path lengths of or longer are actually a family of tornadoes which have formed in quick succession; however, there is no substantial evidence that this occurred in the case of the Tri-State Tornado. In fact, modern reanalysis of the path suggests that the tornado began 15 miles (24 km) further west than previously thought.
Lighting conditions are a major factor in the appearance of a tornado. A tornado which is "back-lit" (viewed with the sun behind it) appears very dark. The same tornado, viewed with the sun at the observer's back, may appear gray or brilliant white. Tornadoes which occur near the time of sunset can be many different colors, appearing in hues of yellow, orange, and pink.
Dust kicked up by the winds of the parent thunderstorm, heavy rain and hail, and the darkness of night are all factors which can reduce the visibility of tornadoes. Tornadoes occurring in these conditions are especially dangerous, since only weather radar observations, or possibly the sound of an approaching tornado, serve as any warning to those in the storm's path. Fortunately most significant tornadoes form under the storm's rain-free base, or the area under the thunderstorm's updraft, where there is little or no rain. In addition, most tornadoes occur in the late afternoon, when the bright sun can penetrate even the thickest clouds. Also, night-time tornadoes are often illuminated by frequent lightning.
There is mounting evidence, including Doppler On Wheels mobile radar images and eyewitness accounts, that most tornadoes have a clear, calm center with extremely low pressure, akin to the eye of tropical cyclones. This area would be clear (possibly full of dust), have relatively light winds, and be very dark, since the light would be blocked by swirling debris on the outside of the tornado. Lightning is said to be the source of illumination for those who claim to have seen the interior of a tornado.
Approximately 1% of tornadoes rotate in an anticyclonic direction. Typically, only landspouts and gustnadoes rotate anticyclonically, and usually only those which form on the anticyclonic shear side of the descending rear flank downdraft in a cyclonic supercell. However, on rare occasions, anticyclonic tornadoes form in association with the mesoanticyclone of an anticyclonic supercell, in the same manner as the typical cyclonic tornado, or as a companion tornado—either as a satellite tornado or associated with anticyclonic eddies within a supercell.
The winds of the tornado vortex and of constituent turbulent eddies, as well as airflow interaction with the surface and debris, contribute to the sounds. Funnel clouds also produce sounds. Funnel clouds and small tornadoes are reported as whistling, whining, humming, or the buzzing of innumerable bees or electricity, or more or less harmonic, whereas many tornadoes are reported as a continuous, deep rumbling, or an irregular sound of “noise”.
Since many tornadoes are audible only in very close proximity, sound is not reliable warning of a tornado. And, any strong, damaging wind, even a severe hail volley or continuous thunder in a thunderstorm may produce a roaring sound.
Tornadoes also produce identifiable inaudible infrasonic signatures. Unlike audible signatures, tornadic signatures have been isolated; due to the long distance propagation of low-frequency sound, efforts are ongoing to develop tornado prediction and detection devices with additional value in understanding tornado morphology, dynamics, and creation. Tornadoes also produce a detectable seismic signature, and research continues on isolating it and understanding the process.
Correlations with patterns of lightning activity have also been observed, but little in way of consistent correlations have been advanced. Tornadic storms do not contain more lightning than other storms, and some tornadic cells never contain lightning. More often than not, overall cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning activity decreases as a tornado reaches the surface and returns to the baseline level when the tornado lifts. In many cases, very intense tornadoes and thunderstorms exhibit an increased and anomalous dominance in positive polarity CG discharges. Electromagnetics and lightning have little to nothing to do directly with what drives tornadoes (tornadoes are basically a thermodynamic phenomenon), though there are likely connections with the storm and environment affecting both phenomena.
Luminosity has been reported in the past, and is probably due to misidentification of external light sources such as lightning, city lights, and power flashes from broken lines, as internal sources are now uncommonly reported and are not known to ever been recorded.
In addition to winds, tornadoes also exhibit changes in atmospheric variables such as temperature, moisture, and pressure. For example, on June 24, 2003 near Manchester, South Dakota, a probe measured a 100 mbar (hPa) (2.95 inHg) pressure deficit. The pressure dropped gradually as the vortex approached then dropped extremely rapidly to 850 mbar (hPa) (25.10 inHg) in the core of the violent tornado before rising rapidly as the vortex moved away, resulting in a V-shape pressure trace. Temperature tends to decrease and moisture content to increase in the immediate vicinity of a tornado.
Most tornadoes from supercells follow a recognizable life cycle. That begins when increasing rainfall drags with it an area of quickly descending air known as the rear flank downdraft (RFD). This downdraft accelerates as it approaches the ground, and drags the supercell's rotating mesocyclone towards the ground with it.
As the tornado enters the dissipating stage, its associated mesocyclone often weakens as well, as the rear flank downdraft cuts off the inflow powering it. In particularly intense supercells tornadoes can develop cycle. As the first mesocyclone and associated tornado dissipate, the storm's inflow may be concentrated into a new area closer to the center of the storm. If a new mesocyclone develops, the cycle may start again, producing one or more new tornadoes. Occasionally, the old (occluded) mesocyclone and the new mesocyclone produce a tornado at the same time.
Though this is a widely-accepted theory for how most tornadoes form, live, and die, it does not explain the formation of smaller tornadoes, such as landspouts, long-lived tornadoes, or tornadoes with multiple vortices. These each have different mechanisms which influence their development—however, most tornadoes follow a pattern similar to this one.
The Fujita scale and the Enhanced Fujita Scale rate tornadoes by damage caused. The Enhanced Fujita Scale was an upgrade to the older Fujita scale, with engineered (by expert elicitation) wind estimates and better damage descriptions, but was designed so that a tornado rated on the Fujita scale would receive the same numerical rating. An EF0 tornado will likely damage trees but not substantial structures, whereas an EF5 tornado can rip buildings off their foundations leaving them bare and even deform large skyscrapers. The similar TORRO scale ranges from a T0 for extremely weak tornadoes to T11 for the most powerful known tornadoes. Doppler radar data, photogrammetry, and ground swirl patterns (cycloidal marks) may also be analyzed to determine intensity and award a rating.
Tornadoes vary in intensity regardless of shape, size, and location, though strong tornadoes are typically larger than weak tornadoes. The association with track length and duration also varies, although longer track tornadoes tend to be stronger. In the case of violent tornadoes, only a small portion of the path is of violent intensity, most of the higher intensity from subvortices.
In the United States, 80% of tornadoes are EF0 and EF1 (T0 through T3) tornadoes. The rate of occurrence drops off quickly with increasing strength—less than 1% are violent tornadoes, stronger than EF4, T8.
Outside the United States, areas in south-central Asia, and perhaps portions of southeastern South America and southern Africa, violent tornadoes are extremely rare. This is apparently mostly due to the lesser number of tornadoes overall, as research shows that tornado intensity distributions are fairly similar worldwide. A few significant tornadoes occur annually in Europe, Asia, southern Africa, and southeastern South America, respectively.
The United States has the most tornadoes of any country, about four times more than estimated in all of Europe, not including waterspouts. This is mostly due to the unique geography of the continent. North America is a relatively large continent that extends from the tropical south into arctic areas, and has no major east-west mountain range to block air flow between these two areas. In the middle latitudes, where most tornadoes of the world occur, the Rocky Mountains block moisture and atmospheric flow, allowing drier air at mid-levels of the troposphere, and causing cyclogenesis downstream to the east of the mountains. The desert Southwest also feeds drier air and the dry line, while the Gulf of Mexico fuels abundant low-level moisture. This unique topography allows for many collisions of warm and cold air, the conditions that breed strong, long-lived storms many times a year. A large portion of these tornadoes form in an area of the central United States known as Tornado Alley. This area extends into Canada, particularly Ontario and the Prairie Provinces. Strong tornadoes also occasionally occur in northern Mexico.
The United States averages about 1,200 tornadoes per year. The Netherlands has the highest average number of recorded tornadoes per area of any country (more than 20, or 0.0013 per sq mi (0.00048 per km²), annually), followed by the UK (around 33, or 0.00035 per sq mi (0.00013 per km²), per year), but most are small and cause minor damage. In absolute number of events, ignoring area, the UK experiences more tornadoes than any other European country, excluding waterspouts.
Tornadoes kill about 179 people per year in Bangladesh, by far the most in the world. This is due to high population density, poor quality of construction, lack of tornado safety knowledge, and other factors. Other areas of the world that have frequent tornadoes include South Africa, parts of Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, as well as portions of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and far eastern Asia.
Tornadoes are most common in spring and least common in winter. Since autumn and spring are transitional periods (warm to cool and vice versa) there are more chances of cooler air meeting with warmer air, resulting in thunderstorms. Tornadoes can also be caused by landfalling tropical cyclones, which tend to occur in the late summer and autumn. But favorable conditions can occur at any time of the year.
Tornado occurrence is highly dependent on the time of day, because of solar heating. Worldwide, most tornadoes occur in the late afternoon, between 3 pm and 7 pm local time, with a peak near 5 pm. However, destructive tornadoes can occur at any time of day. The Gainesville Tornado of 1936, one of the deadliest tornadoes in history, occurred at 8:30 am local time.
Although insufficient support exists to make conclusions, evidence does suggest that the Southern Oscillation is weakly correlated with some changes in tornado activity; which vary by season and region as well as whether the ENSO phase is that of El Niño or La Niña.
Climatic shifts affect tornadoes via teleconnections in shifting the jet stream and the larger weather patterns. The climate-tornado link is confounded by the forces affecting larger patterns and by the local, nuanced nature of tornadoes. Although it is reasonable that the climate change phenomenon of global warming may affect tornado activity, any such effect is not yet identifiable due to the complexity, local nature of the storms, and database quality issues. Any effect would vary by region.
Weather forecasting is handled regionally by many national and international agencies. For the most part, they are also in charge of the prediction of conditions conducive to tornado development. Australia Severe thunderstorm warnings are provided to Australia by the Bureau of Meteorology. The country is in the middle of an upgrade to Doppler radar systems, with their first benchmark of installing six new radars reached in July 2006. Europe The ESTOFEX (European Storm Forecast Experiment) project issues one day forecasts for severe weather likelihood and the ESSL (European Severe Storms Laboratory) maintain a data base of events. United Kingdom In the United Kingdom, the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) makes experimental predictions. The Met Office provides official forecasts for the UK. United States In the United States, generalized severe weather predictions are issued by the Storm Prediction Center, based in Norman, Oklahoma. For the next one, two, and three days, respectively, they will issue categorical and probabilistic forecasts of severe weather, including tornadoes. There is also a more general forecast issued for the four to eight day period. Just prior to the expected onset of an organized severe weather threat, SPC issues severe thunderstorm and tornado watches, in collaboration with local National Weather Service offices. Warnings are issued by local National Weather Service offices when a severe thunderstorm or tornado is occurring or imminent. Other areas In Japan, predictions and study of tornadoes in Japan are handled by the Japan Meteorological Agency. In Canada, weather forecasts and warnings, including tornadoes, are produced by the seven regional offices of the Meteorological Service of Canada, a division of Environment Canada.
Rigorous attempts to warn of tornadoes began in the United States in the mid-20th century. Before the 1950s, the only method of detecting a tornado was by someone seeing it on the ground. Often, news of a tornado would reach a local weather office after the storm.
However, with the advent of weather radar, areas near a local office could get advance warning of severe weather. The first public tornado warnings were issued in 1950 and the first tornado watches and convective outlooks in 1952. In 1953 it was confirmed that hook echoes are associated with tornadoes. By recognizing these radar signatures, meteorologists could detect thunderstorms likely producing tornadoes from dozens of miles away.
Usually spotters are trained by the NWS on behalf of their respective organizations, and report to them. The organizations activate public warning systems such as sirens and the Emergency Alert System, and forward the report to the NWS. There are more than 230,000 trained Skywarn weather spotters across the United States.
In Canada, a similar network of volunteer weather watchers, called Canwarn, helps spot severe weather, with more than 1,000 volunteers. In Europe, several nations are organizing spotter networks under the auspices of Skywarn Europe and the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) has maintained a network of spotters in the United Kingdom since the 1970s.
Storm spotters are needed because radar systems such as NEXRAD do not detect a tornado; only indications of one. Radar may give a warning before there is any visual evidence of a tornado or imminent tornado, but ground truth from an observer can either verify the threat or determine that a tornado is not imminent. The spotter's ability to see what radar cannot is especially important as distance from the radar site increases, because the radar beam becomes progressively higher in altitude further away from the radar, chiefly due to curvature of Earth, and the beam also spreads out. Therefore, when far from a radar, only high in the storm is observed and the important areas are not sampled, and data resolution also suffers. Also, some meteorological situations leading to tornadogenesis are not readily detectable by radar and on occasion tornado development may occur more quickly than radar can complete a scan and send the batch of data.
Storm spotters are trained to discern whether a storm seen from a distance is a supercell. They typically look to its rear, the main region of updraft and inflow. Under the updraft is a rain-free base, and the next step of tornadogenesis is the formation of a rotating wall cloud. The vast majority of intense tornadoes occur with a wall cloud on the backside of a supercell.
Evidence of a supercell comes from the storm's shape and structure, and cloud tower features such as a hard and vigorous updraft tower, a persistent, large overshooting top, a hard anvil (especially when backsheared against strong upper level winds), and a corkscrew look or striations. Under the storm and closer to where most tornadoes are found, evidence of a supercell and likelihood of a tornado includes inflow bands (particularly when curved) such as a "beaver tail", and other clues such as strength of inflow, warmth and moistness of inflow air, how outflow- or inflow-dominant a storm appears, and how far is the front flank precipitation core from the wall cloud. Tornadogenesis is most likely at the interface of the updraft and rear flank downdraft, and requires a balance between the outflow and inflow.
Only wall clouds that rotate spawn tornadoes, and usually precede the tornado by five to thirty minutes. Rotating wall clouds are the visual manifestation of a mesocyclone. Barring a low-level boundary, tornadogenesis is highly unlikely unless a rear flank downdraft occurs, which is usually visibly evidenced by evaporation of cloud adjacent to a corner of a wall cloud. A tornado often occurs as this happens or shortly after; first, a funnel cloud dips and in nearly all cases by the time it reaches halfway down, a surface swirl has already developed, signifying a tornado is on the ground before condensation connects the surface circulation to the storm. Tornadoes may also occur without wall clouds, under flanking lines, and on the leading edge. Spotters watch all areas of a storm, and the cloud base and surface.
Also, most populated areas on Earth are now visible from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), which aid in the nowcasting of tornadic storms.
The most extensive tornado outbreak on record, in almost every category, was the Super Outbreak, which affected a large area of the central United States and extreme southern Ontario in Canada on April 3 and April 4, 1974. Not only did this outbreak feature an incredible 148 tornadoes in only 18 hours, but an unprecedented number of them were violent; six were of F5 intensity, and twenty-four F4. This outbreak had a staggering sixteen tornadoes on the ground at the same time at the peak of the outbreak. More than 300 people, possibly as many as 330, were killed by tornadoes during this outbreak.
While it is nearly impossible to directly measure the most violent tornado wind speeds (conventional anemometers would be destroyed by the intense winds), some tornadoes have been scanned by mobile Doppler radar units, which can provide a good estimate of the tornado's winds. The highest wind speed ever measured in a tornado, which is also the highest wind speed ever recorded on the planet, is 301 ± 20 mph (484 ± 32 km/h) in the F5 Moore, Oklahoma tornado. Though the reading was taken about 100 feet (30 m) above the ground, this is a testament to the power of the strongest tornadoes.
Storms which produce tornadoes can feature intense updrafts, sometimes exceeding . Debris from a tornado can be lofted into the parent storm and carried a very long distance. A tornado which affected Great Bend, Kansas in November, 1915 was an extreme case, where a "rain of debris" occurred 80 miles (130 km) from the town, a sack of flour was found 110 miles (177 km) away, and a cancelled check from the Great Bend bank was found in a field outside of Palmyra, Nebraska, 305 miles (491 km) to the northeast.
Some countries have meteorological agencies which distribute tornado forecasts and increase levels of alert of a possible tornado (such as tornado watches and warnings in the United States and Canada). Weather radios provide an alarm when a severe weather advisory is issued for the local area, though these are mainly available only in the United States.
Unless the tornado is far away and highly visible, meteorologists advise that drivers park their vehicles far to the side of the road (so as not to block emergency traffic), and find a sturdy shelter. If no sturdy shelter is nearby, getting low in a ditch is the next best option. Highway overpasses are extremely bad shelter during tornadoes (see next section).
Another commonly held belief is that highway overpasses provide adequate shelter from tornadoes. On the contrary, a highway overpass is a dangerous place during a tornado. In the 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak of May 3, 1999, three highway overpasses were directly struck by tornadoes, and at all three locations there was a fatality, along with many life-threatening injuries. The small area under the overpasses created a kind of wind tunnel, increasing the wind's speed, making matters worse. By comparison, during the same tornado outbreak, more than 2000 homes were completely destroyed, with another 7000 damaged, and yet only a few dozen people died in their homes.
An old belief is that the southwest corner of a basement provides the most protection during a tornado. The safest place is the side or corner of an underground room opposite the tornado's direction of approach (usually the northeast corner), or the central-most room on the lowest floor. Taking shelter under a sturdy table, in a basement, or under a staircase increases chances of survival even more.
Finally, there are areas which people believe to be protected from tornadoes, whether by a major river, a hill or mountain, or even protected by "spirits". Tornadoes have been known to cross major rivers, climb mountains, and affect valleys. As a general rule, no area is "safe" from tornadoes, though some areas are more susceptible than others. (See Tornado climatology).
Meteorology is a relatively young science and the study of tornadoes even more so. Although studied for about 140 years and intensively for around 60 years, there are still aspects of tornadoes which remain a mystery. Scientists do have a fairly good idea of the development of thunderstorms and mesocyclones, and the meteorological conditions conducive to their formation; however, the step from supercell (or other respective formative processes) to tornadogenesis and predicting tornadic vs. non-tornadic mesocyclones is not yet well understood and is the focus of much research.
Also under study are the low-level mesocyclone and the stretching of low-level vorticity which tightens into a tornado, namely, what are the processes and what is the relationship of the environment and the convective storm. Intense tornadoes have been observed forming simultaneously with a mesocyclone aloft (rather than succeeding mesocyclogenesis) and some intense tornadoes have occurred without a mid-level mesocyclone. In particular, the role of downdrafts, particularly the rear-flank downdraft, and the role of baroclinic boundaries, are intense areas of study.
Reliably predicting tornado intensity and longevity remains a problem, as do details affecting characteristics of a tornado during its life cycle and tornadolysis. Other rich areas of research are tornadoes associated with mesovortices within linear thunderstorm structures and within tropical cyclones.
Scientists still do not know the exact mechanisms by which most tornadoes form, and occasional tornadoes still strike without a tornado warning being issued, especially in under-developed countries. Analysis of observations including both stationary and mobile (surface and aerial) in-situ and remote sensing (passive and active) instruments generates new ideas and refines existing notions. Numerical modeling also provides new insights as observations and new discoveries are integrated into our physical understanding and then tested in computer simulations which validate new notions as well as produce entirely new theoretical findings, many of which are otherwise unattainable. Importantly, development of new observation technologies and installation of finer spatial and temporal resolution observation networks have aided increased understanding and better predictions.
Research programs, including field projects such as VORTEX, deployment of TOTO (the TOtable Tornado Observatory), Doppler On Wheels (DOW), and dozens of other programs, hope to solve many questions that still plague meteorologists. Universities, government agencies such as the National Severe Storms Laboratory, private-sector meteorologists, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research are some of the organizations very active in research; with various sources of funding, both private and public, a chief entity being the National Science Foundation.