A tornado is a violent, dangerous, rotating column of air which is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. The most intense of all atmospheric phenomena, tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes but are typically in the form of a visible condensation funnel, whose narrow end touches the earth and is often encircled by a cloud of debris and dust. Most tornadoes have wind speeds between 40 mph (64 km/h) and 110 mph (177 km/h), are approximately 250 feet (75 m) across, and travel a few miles (several kilometers) before dissipating. The most extreme can attain wind speeds of more than 300 mph (480 km/h), stretch more than a mile (1.6 km) across, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles (more than 100 km).
Various types of tornadoes include the landspout, multiple-vortex tornado, and waterspout. Waterspouts have similar characteristics to tornadoes, characterized by a spiraling funnel-shaped wind current that form over bodies of water, connecting to large cumulus and thunderstorm clouds. These spiraling columns of air frequently develop in tropical areas close to the equator, and are less common at high latitudes. Other tornado-like phenomena which exist in nature include the gustnado, dust devil, fire whirls, and steam devil.
Tornadoes have been observed on every continent except Antarctica. The vast majority of tornadoes in the world occur in the Tornado Alley region of the United States, although they frequently occur in a large portion in North America. They also occasionally occur in south-central and eastern Asia, the Philippines, east-central South America, Southern Africa, northwestern and southeast Europe, western and southeastern Australia, and New Zealand. Tornadoes can be detected before or as they occur through the use of pulse-Doppler radar by recognizing patterns in velocity and reflectivity data, such as hook echoes, as well as by the efforts of storm spotters.
There are several different scales for rating the strength of tornadoes. The Fujita scale rates tornadoes by damage caused, and has been replaced in some countries by the updated Enhanced Fujita scale. An F0 or EF0 tornado, the weakest category, damages trees but not substantial structures. An F5 or EF5 tornado, the strongest category, rips buildings off their foundations and can deform large skyscrapers. The similar TORRO scale ranges from a T0 for extremely weak tornadoes to T11 for the most powerful known tornadoes. Doppler radar data, photogrammetry, and ground swirl patterns (cycloidal marks) may also be analyzed to determine intensity and assign a rating.
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