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Where Do Tornadoes Get Their Start? Maybe It's Not All About The Funnel Cloud.

Mali Mish/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

From Texas Standard:

Where do tornadoes come from? It's not a riddle or a trick question, although the answer may seem obvious: the sky, right? Evidently, that's not the case.

Tornadoes form from the ground up, not from the sky down – at least that's the claim made by University of Ohio atmospheric scientist  Jana Houser and her colleagues in a recent paper.

Houser says the idea that tornadoes might move from ground to sky is not new. Researchers have been trying to learn how the storms develop since the 1960s. 

"Back in the '70s, there was some observational evidence, along with some numerical modeling, that basically suggested that tornadoes might form from the cloud and descend to the surface," Houser says.  

But another theory took the opposite view, suggesting that rotation begins near the ground, and moves upward. Houser says she looked at both theories using a new instrument that can retrieve data more quickly than older equipment.

Houser and her colleagues examined four tornadoes – a relatively small sample.

"We found that none of those four tornadoes were associated with this top-down process that was evident in the radar data," Houser says.

She says that when we observe a funnel cloud coming downward from the sky, we can't see the invisible rotation of the air that's already happening when the funnel appears.

Houser says it's too soon to say that tornadoes definitely begin near the ground.

"We are getting increasingly stronger evidence that if it is occurring, it is certainly not occurring at the rates and frequency that it once was thought to occur," Houser says.

Understanding where tornadoes begin could change the way they are predicted. If air rotation begins near the ground, meteorologists charged with issuing tornado warnings would need to monitor what's happening at or below 100 meters above the ground. Houser says current radar instruments are too far away to observe those low-level rotations.

"The bigger picture here is that we are ultimately trying to dissect the tornado formation process itself," Houser says. "I'm not claiming to have solved this problem by any means, but we're making a step forward."

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Michael Marks