How Do Tornados Form?

With wind speeds that can reach more than 300 mph, tornados are one of the most destructive natural disasters on the planet. Although scientists don't entirely understand how they are formed, they do have a good idea about the conditions that cause tornados to develop in the first place. 

Tornados have touched down on all continents except Antarctica, but certain locations on Earth are more likely to experience tornados than others. Most tornados occur in Tornado Alley— the tornado-prone region of the United States, that spans from Texas to Kansas as well as the states in the Great Plains region.

This area often has the three things necessary for tornados to form:

  • A lot of warm, moist air close to the ground.
  • Atmospheric instability, a condition that promotes the vertical movement of air.
  • Clashing air fronts that propel moist air upward.

How Do Tornados FormIn areas where tornados can occur, warm, moist, low-elevation wind collides with cool, dry, higher-elevation wind. This unstable interaction causes the warm air front to quickly rise and cool air front to fall, which leads to the formation of a supercell, a type of thunderstorm with a long-lived, swirling updraft of air.

However, not all supercells result in tornados.

Scientists believe that if the two opposing winds move at different speeds, the air in between them will rotate on a horizontal axis. If one end of the horizontal air column gets caught in the supercell's updraft, it will tilt vertically, forming a funnel cloud.

The continuous upward energy of the supercell elongates the funnel cloud, and causes its spin to tighten and speed up (similar to the way ice skaters spin faster when their arms are pulled close to their bodies).

Rain and hail from the thunderstorm push down on the tail of the funnel. When the bottom of the funnel cloud finally touches the ground, it becomes a tornado.
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