Tornado - Not Just Another Storm!

By: Peter Wilson

While the majority of our days are spent in very livable and comfortable weather conditions, there are exceptions. Those days bring us something out of the ordinary and the weather can become more of a challenge - foe rather than friend.

One of the more destructive of earth's extreme weather conditions is the tornado, featuring quickly spinning winds that pack a damaging punch. This category of storms can include small, entertaining dust devils, waterspouts that form over the ocean and, of course, the well-known tornado. There are basic differences in how these three weather phenomena are formed, even though they share the whirling wind characteristic.

Smaller whirlwinds such as dust devils are formed when the ground and the air immediately above it are heated. The air begins to rise rapidly and wind movement may cause the rising air to rotate. In contrast, a tornado is born when air at higher elevations meet the necessary conditions of severe thunderstorms. Meteorologists and storm chasers look for the telltale signs of a "supercell" when tracking tornadoes (though these storms can sometimes form with a squall or a hurricane).

While men and women have been tracking and studying tornadoes for decades, the true nature of this extreme of nature is still not completely understood. One theory proposes that air moving in different directions, at different levels, causes the rotation. Part of the tornado theory includes details about the interaction of warm air and cold air currents moving in particular directions to produce the whirling column.

Scientists do know that the rotation basically moves down, against the flow of the original updraft in the cloud structure. This results in the familiar funnel cloud that works its way out of the base of the clouds to touch the ground. Thus, a tornado is born. (Late winter and spring are prime time for a tornado in the U.S. Atmospheric instability is greatest during this season.)

Tornadoes generally have little color of their own, though the debris and dust they pick up from the ground will provide a solid appearance. Some tornadoes can actually cause destruction while remaining nearly invisible. But even when they cannot be seen, a tornado's location can be estimated. The storm travels with the original thunderstorm, along a path that may reach up to a half mile in width. The speed of rotation in a tornado may reach 300 miles per hour, while the storm itself moves along the earth at a slower speed.

Fortunately for human beings and other living things, many tornadoes travel a very short distance before losing their strength. The updraft of air, which may approach 180 miles per hour in the strongest storms, can lose intensity and "kill" the storm. However, some tornadoes have continued their destruction for miles, leaving entire communities devastated. Scientists have calculated that the average tornado lasts 15 minutes, though storms have been tracked for an hour or longer. While the U.S. experiences the highest number of tornadoes, the United States is far from alone in meeting this weather phenomenon. The Netherlands is actually considered the most tornado-prone area on earth.

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Peter Wilson is publishing largely for , a web publication with topics around storm . His articles on temperature in benidorm spain are published on .

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