All About Tornadoes

By: Julian Snyder

Tornadoes, what are they?

For those who live in the Great Plains or the United State’s Eastern Sunbelt, your greatest fear might be a spinning column of air, clouds, and possibly debris. Tornadoes have been happening in the United States for hundreds of years, but people have only been researching them since about the 1970s, and most improvements have been in the past 15 years. Many people have heard of the big ones such as the May 2013 El Reno, Oklahoma tornado, which grew to 2.6 miles wide and is the only tornado to kill storm chasers, or the December 2021 Mayfield, Kentucky tornado which went across 3 states and killed over 57 people. Researchers have been puzzling over how these monsters form, and why some will lay devastation, be multiple miles wide, and have wind speeds in excess of 200mph or even 300mph. Scientists and Storm Chasers, who drive for numerous hours a day and hundreds of miles just to see tornadoes, have worked closely with each other to further research and help model the conditions in which these large spinning mysteries form, and even why some form when certain factors are missing.

In 1962 the U.S.A Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) created the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), which used a Doppler Radar to detect the high wind speed of a tornado, but it wasn’t until 1973, when the NSSL sent out a team to chase a tornado, that the Tornado Vortex Signature was found. Since then storm chasing and severe weather science have been closely related. For example, a prominent storm chaser, Reed Timmer, who used to only try and capture extreme video of tornadoes to sell, has outfitted his vehicles with radar and parachute probes to try and study the inside of a storm. Other storm chasers, such as Tim Samaras, who was killed in the 2013 El Reno tornado and widely regarded as one of the safest storm chasers, dedicate their whole storm-chasing career to gathering scientific data. Most research that is done into severe storms and tornadoes is to figure out why they form and increase the warning time for residents in the areas as well as help design stronger buildings that can withstand higher winds.

One of the most important things to know about tornadoes is how they form. Tornadoes form when a thunderstorm’s updraft, or the rising air in a thunderstorm, starts to rotate. This rotation is caused by wind shear, which is when the wind changes direction and speed with height. This rotation is then tilted vertically by the thunderstorm’s updraft, which then creates a mesocyclone, which tornadoes tend to form in. A mesocyclone sometimes can be noticed by a rotating wallcloud. The most common type of storm to produce a tornado is a Supercell, which is one of four common types of thunderstorms, and they tend to form in the Great Plains. The other three types of thunderstorms are Squall Lines, Single Cells, and Multi Cells and each of these types can also form tornadoes under the right conditions.