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Earth Science for Kids

Weather - Tornadoes

Tornadoes are one of the most violent and powerful types of weather. They consist of a very fast rotating column of air that usually forms a funnel shape. They can be very dangerous as their high speed winds can break apart buildings, knock down trees, and even toss cars into the air.
How do tornadoes form?

When we talk about tornadoes, we are usually talking about large tornadoes that occur during thunderstorms. These types of tornadoes form from very tall thunderstorm clouds called cumulonimbus clouds. However, it takes more than just a thunderstorm to cause a tornado. Other conditions must occur for a tornado to form.

The typical steps for the formation of a tornado are as follows:
  1. A large thunderstorm occurs in a cumulonimbus cloud
  2. A change in wind direction and wind speed at high altitudes causes the air to swirl horizontally
  3. Rising air from the ground pushes up on the swirling air and tips it over
  4. The funnel of swirling air begins to suck up more warm air from the ground
  5. The funnel grows longer and stretches toward the ground
  6. When the funnel touches the ground it becomes a tornado
Characteristics of a Tornado

Types of Tornadoes

Supercell - A supercell is large long-lived thunderstorm. It can produce some of the largest and most violent tornadoes.
Waterspout - A waterspout forms over water. They usually dissipate when they hit land.
Landspout - A landspout is similar to a waterspout, but on land. It is weak and is not associated with a vortex of air from a thunderstorm.
Gustnado - A small tornado formed at a weather front by gusts of wind.
Multiple vortex - A tornado with more than one spinning tube of air.

Tornado Categories

Tornadoes are categorized by their wind speed and the amount of damage they cause using a scale called the "Enhanced Fujita" scale. It is usually abbreviated as the "EF" scale.

Category Wind Speed Strength
EF-0 65-85 MPH Weak
EF-1 86-110 MPH Weak
EF-2 111-135 MPH Strong
EF-3 136-165 MPH Strong
EF-4 166-200 MPH Violent
EF-5 over 200 MPH Violent

Where do most tornadoes occur?

Tornadoes can form most anywhere, but most of the tornadoes in the United States occur in an area called Tornado Alley. Tornado Alley stretches from northern Texas to South Dakota and from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains.

Interesting Facts about Tornadoes
Tornado Warnings and Watches

Tornadoes can be very dangerous. In order to save lives, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues tornado "watches" and "warnings." A tornado "watch" means that weather conditions are favorable for a tornado to be produced. A tornado "warning" means that a tornado is happing right now or is going to happen soon. During a tornado "watch" you should begin preparing for a tornado. When you hear a tornado "warning", it is time to take action.


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