Diving a little deeper into summer weather and tornadoes

Tornadoes are nearly impossible to study but we do know a lot 
about the mechanics of how they form

In this instalment, we’ll continue our look at severe thunderstorms, and specifically, the most deadly part — tornadoes.

While eastern parts of the Prairies have only seen a few isolated severe thunderstorms, parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta have already seen their fair share. I think most Canadians were more than impressed, and maybe a little bit proud, about the image of the person mowing their lawn in Alberta as a tornado worked its way across the farmland in the background. Only in Canada!

Just what are tornadoes and how do they form?

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A classic definition of a tornado is a violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground, which may or may not be visible as a funnel cloud. For this rotating column of air to be classified as a tornado it must touch the ground.

As to how tornadoes form, the real answer is, we just don’t know.

Tornadoes usually develop from super cell thunderstorms, which are difficult to predict. Even if we were able to accurately predict where and when these thunderstorms would develop, the intense part of the thunderstorm usually only covers an area of a few hundred square kilometres. Within this few hundred square kilometres, the really severe weather may only occur in a small area of maybe 10 to 20 square kilometres. Now, if we look at the size of a tornado, we would find that they range from as small as about 40 metres to as large as two kilometres across, with the average width being around 100 to 200 metres. This means that, as far as weather phenomena are concerned, tornadoes are very small, which makes them very hard to study first hand.

Now, before I go on to look at tornadoes in more detail, let’s first take a look at one of the weakest members of the tornado family, and something we see around Manitoba — the cold air funnel.

All tornadoes develop out of what we refer to as a funnel cloud. In strong thunderstorms, these funnels elongate and may eventually touch the ground to become a tornado, but a funnel cloud all by itself is not considered a tornado.

While a fair bit of research has been done on tornadoes and the storms that produce them, very little research has been done on cold air funnels, therefore, we know very little about them. In general, cold air funnels form in environments where we would not typically expect severe weather to develop. Usually, cold air funnels will form when there is a large pool of cold air aloft that is most often associated with an upper-level low. These conditions provide two critical ingredients that are believed to be necessary for the development of cold air funnels — instability and vorticity.

If you think back to when we talked about instability in the atmosphere, you’ll remember that warm air will rise and cold air will sink. If the atmosphere is unstable you need either really warm air at the surface, or very cold air in the upper atmosphere. This is why there needs to be a pool of cold air aloft for cold air funnels to form because this provides the first ingredient — instability, or rising air.

The second ingredient is vorticity. This simply means spinning air. Areas of low pressure are large areas of spinning air that are too large to form into a funnel cloud or tornado. But within this large area of spinning air, smaller regions get “spun up” creating what meteorologists call a vorticity-rich environment containing lots of little eddies of spinning air.

What scientists believe happens, is that one of these small eddies of spinning air gets caught in an updraft. This updraft then pulls on and elongates the eddy, causing it to contract in width, and, just like a figure skater pulling their arms in during a spin, this causes the rotation to speed up, creating a funnel cloud.

These funnel clouds are generally very weak and short lived, and will rarely become strong enough or last long enough to touch down. If they do touch down, they can then be referred to as tornadoes, but even then they rarely cause much damage, often comparable to that of a very strong dust devil. In fact, when these cold air funnels do touch down they are sometimes referred to as land spouts.

Since the potential exists for cold air funnels to touch down as a tornado, Environment Canada has to issue special weather statements to warn the public about them. Since they rarely touch down — and even when they do they rarely cause damage — such statements will usually urge the public to be watchful for these to occur and to take precautions if necessary, i.e. you don’t have to go diving for the nearest storm shelter if you do see one of them forming.

About the author

AF Contributor

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the University of Winnipeg. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park, Manitoba.

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