THE BASICS ABOUT TORNADOES
According to the Glossary of Meteorology (AMS 2000), a tornado is "a violently rotating column of air, pendant from a cumuliform cloud or underneath a cumuliform cloud, and often (but not always) visible as a funnel cloud." Literally, in order for a vortex to be classified as a tornado, it must be in contact with the ground and the cloud base. Weather scientists haven't found it so simple in practice, however, to classify and define tornadoes. For example, the difference is unclear between a strong mesocyclone (parent thunderstorm circulation) on the ground, and a large, weak tornado. There is also disagreement as to whether separate touchdowns of the same funnel constitute separate tornadoes. It is well known that a tornado may not have a visible funnel.
The classic answer -"warm moist Gulf air meets cold Canadian air and dry air from the Rockies" - is a gross oversimplification. Many thunderstorms form under those conditions (near warm fronts, cold fronts and drylines respectively), which never even come close to producing tornadoes. Even when the large-scale environment is extremely favorable for tornadic thunderstorms, as in a Storm Prediction Center (SPC) "High Risk" outlook, not every thunderstorm spawns a tornado. The truth is that we don't fully understand. The most destructive and deadly tornadoes occur from supercells. Supercells are rotating thunderstorms with a well-defined radar circulation called a mesocyclone. Supercells can also produce damaging hail, severe non-tornadic winds, unusually frequent lightning, and flash floods.
Tornadoes can appear from any
direction. Most move from southwest to northeast, or west to east. Some
tornadoes have changed direction amid path, or even backtracked. A tornado can
double back suddenly, for example, when its bottom is hit by outflow winds from
a thunderstorm's core. Some areas of the US tend to have more paths from a
specific direction, such as northwest in Minnesota or southeast in coastal
south Texas. This is because of an increased frequency of certain
tornado-producing weather patterns. For example, hurricanes in south Texas, or
northwest-flow weather systems in the upper Midwest.
Not necessarily, for any of those. Rain, wind, lightning, and
hail characteristics vary from storm to storm, from one hour to
the next, and even with the direction the storm is moving with respect to the
observer. While large hail can indicate the presence of an unusually dangerous
thunderstorm, and can happen before a tornado, don't depend on it. Hail, or any
particular pattern of rain, lightning or calmness, is not a reliable predictor
of tornado threat.
The details are still
debated by tornado scientists. We do know tornadoes need a source of
instability (heat, moisture, etc.) and a larger-scale property of rotation (vorticity)
to keep going. There are a lot of processes around a thunderstorm, which can
possibly rob the area around a tornado of either instability or vorticity. One
is relatively cold outflow - the flow of wind out of the precipitation
area of a shower or thunderstorm. Many tornadoes have been observed to go away
soon after being hit by outflow. For decades, storm observers have documented
the death of numerous tornadoes when their parent circulations (mesocyclones)
weaken after they become wrapped in outflow air - either from the same
thunderstorm or a different one. The irony is that some kinds of thunderstorm
outflow may help to cause tornadoes, while other forms of outflow may kill
Not in a literal sense, despite what you may have read in many older references, news stories, or even damage survey reports. By definition (above), a tornado must be in contact with the ground. There is disagreement in meteorology over whether or not multiple touchdowns of the same vortex or funnel cloud mean different tornadoes (a strict interpretation). In either event, stories of skipping tornadoes usually mean there was continuous contact between vortex and ground in the path, but it was too weak to do damage; multiple tornadoes happened; but there was no survey done to precisely separate their paths (very common before the 1970s); or there were multiple tornadoes with only short separation, but the survey erroneously classified them as one tornado.
Tornadoes can last from
several seconds to more than an hour. The longest-lived tornado in history is
really unknown, because so many of the long-lived tornadoes reported from the
early 1900s and before are believed to be tornado series instead. Most
tornadoes last less than 10 minutes; however a tornado traveling at 60 mph,
lasting for 10 minutes, would cover 10 miles.
A waterspout is a tornado over water - usually meaning
non-supercell tornadoes over water. Waterspouts are common along the southeast
U.S. coast - especially off southern Florida and the Keys - and can happen over
seas, bays and lakes worldwide. Although waterspouts are always tornadoes by
definition, they don't officially count in tornado records unless they hit
land. They are smaller and weaker than the most intense Great Plains tornadoes,
but still can be quite dangerous. Waterspouts can overturn small boats, damage
ships, do significant damage when hitting land, and kill people. The National Weather Service will often
issue special marine warnings when waterspouts are likely or have been sighted
over coastal waters, or tornado warnings when waterspouts can move onshore.
(multiple-vortex) tornadoes contain two or more small, intense subvortices
orbiting the center of the larger tornado circulation. When a tornado doesn't
contain too much dust and debris, they
can sometimes be spectacularly visible. These vortices may form and die
within a few seconds, sometimes appearing to train through the same part of the
tornado one after another. They can happen in all sorts of tornado sizes, from
huge "wedge" tornadoes to
narrow "rope" tornadoes.
Subvortices are the cause of most of the narrow, short, extreme swaths of
damage that sometimes arc through tornado tracks.