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Theoretical problems of The Sun

Solar neutrino problem

For many years the number of solar electron neutrinos detected on Earth was 13 to 12 of the number predicted by the standard solar model. This anomalous result was termed the solar neutrino problem. Theories proposed to resolve the problem either tried to reduce the temperature of the Sun's interior to explain the lower neutrino flux, or posited that electron neutrinos could oscillate—that is, change into undetectable tau and muon neutrinos as they traveled between the Sun and the Earth. Several neutrino observatories were built in the 1980s to measure the solar neutrino flux as accurately as possible, including the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and Kamiokande. Results from these observatories eventually led to the discovery that neutrinos have a very small rest mass and do indeed oscillate. Moreover, in 2001 the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was able to detect all three types of neutrinos directly, and found that the Sun's total neutrino emission rate agreed with the Standard Solar Model, although depending on the neutrino energy as few as one-third of the neutrinos seen at Earth are of the electron type. This proportion agrees with that predicted by the Mikheyev-Smirnov-Wolfenstein effect (also known as the matter effect), which describes neutrino oscillation in matter, and it is now considered a solved problem.

Coronal heating problem

The optical surface of the Sun (the photosphere) is known to have a temperature of approximately 6,000 K. Above it lies the solar corona, rising to a temperature of 1,000,000–2,000,000 K. The high temperature of the corona shows that it is heated by something other than direct heat conduction from the photosphere.

It is thought that the energy necessary to heat the corona is provided by turbulent motion in the convection zone below the photosphere, and two main mechanisms have been proposed to explain coronal heating. The first is wave heating, in which sound, gravitational or magnetohydrodynamic waves are produced by turbulence in the convection zone. These waves travel upward and dissipate in the corona, depositing their energy in the ambient gas in the form of heat. The other is magnetic heating, in which magnetic energy is continuously built up by photospheric motion and released through magnetic reconnection in the form of large solar flares and myriad similar but smaller events—nanoflares.

Currently, it is unclear whether waves are an efficient heating mechanism. All waves except Alfvén waves have been found to dissipate or refract before reaching the corona. In addition, Alfvén waves do not easily dissipate in the corona. Current research focus has therefore shifted towards flare heating mechanisms.

Faint young Sun problem

Theoretical models of the Sun's development suggest that 3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago, during the Archean period, the Sun was only about 75% as bright as it is today. Such a weak star would not have been able to sustain liquid water on the Earth's surface, and thus life should not have been able to develop. However, the geological record demonstrates that the Earth has remained at a fairly constant temperature throughout its history, and that the young Earth was somewhat warmer than it is today. The consensus among scientists is that the young Earth's atmosphere contained much larger quantities of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and/or ammonia) than are present today, which trapped enough heat to compensate for the smaller amount of solar energy reaching the planet.

Present anomalies

The Sun is currently behaving unexpectedly in a number of ways.

  • It is in the midst of an unusual sunspot minimum, lasting far longer and with a higher percentage of spotless days than normal; since May 2008.
  • It is measurably dimming; its output has dropped 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at EUV wavelengths in comparison with the levels at the last solar minimum.
  • Over the last two decades, the solar wind's speed has dropped by 3%, its temperature by 13%, and its density by 20%.
  • Its magnetic field is at less than half strength compared to the minimum of 22 years ago. The entire heliosphere, which fills the Solar System, has shrunk as a result, resulting in an increase in the level of cosmic radiation striking the Earth and its atmosphere.

Motion and location within the galaxy

Motion of the barycenter of the Solar System relative to the Sun

The Sun lies close to the inner rim of the Milky Way Galaxy's Orion Arm, in the Local Fluff or the Gould Belt, at a hypothesized distance of 7.5–8.5 kpc (25,000–28,000 lightyears) from the Galactic Center, contained within the Local Bubble, a space of rarefied hot gas, possibly produced by the supernova remnant, Geminga. The distance between the local arm and the next arm out, the Perseus Arm, is about 6,500 light-years. The Sun, and thus the Solar System, is found in what scientists call the galactic habitable zone.

The Apex of the Sun's Way, or the solar apex, is the direction that the Sun travels through space in the Milky Way, relative to other nearby stars. The general direction of the Sun's galactic motion is towards the star Vega in the constellation of Lyra at an angle of roughly 60 sky degrees to the direction of the Galactic Center.

The Sun's orbit around the Galaxy is expected to be roughly elliptical with the addition of perturbations due to the galactic spiral arms and non-uniform mass distributions. In addition the Sun oscillates up and down relative to the galactic plane approximately 2.7 times per orbit. It has been argued that the Sun's passage through the higher density spiral arms often coincides with mass extinctions on Earth, perhaps due to increased impact events. It takes the Solar System about 225–250 million years to complete one orbit of the galaxy (a galactic year), so it is thought to have completed 20–25 orbits during the lifetime of the Sun. The orbital speed of the Solar System about the center of the Galaxy is approximately 251 km/s. At this speed, it takes around 1,190 years for the Solar System to travel a distance of 1 light-year, or 7 days to travel 1 AU.

The Sun's motion about the centre of mass of the Solar System is complicated by perturbations from the planets. Every few hundred years this motion switches between prograde and retrograde.


Sunlight is Earth's primary source of energy. The solar constant is the amount of power that the Sun deposits per unit area that is directly exposed to sunlight. The solar constant is equal to approximately 1,368 W/m2 (watts per square meter) at a distance of one astronomical unit (AU) from the Sun (that is, on or near Earth). Sunlight on the surface of Earth is attenuated by the Earth's atmosphere so that less power arrives at the surface—closer to 1,000 W/m2 in clear conditions when the Sun is near the zenith.

Solar energy can be harnessed by a variety of natural and synthetic processes—photosynthesis by plants captures the energy of sunlight and converts it to chemical form (oxygen and reduced carbon compounds), while direct heating or electrical conversion by solar cells are used by solar power equipment to generate electricity or to do other useful work, sometimes employing concentrating solar power (that it is measured in suns). The energy stored in petroleum and other fossil fuels was originally converted from sunlight by photosynthesis in the distant past.

Life cycle of The Sun

Evolution of the Sun's luminosity, radius and effective temperature compared to the present Sun. After Ribas (2010)

The Sun was formed about 4.57 billion years ago when a hydrogen molecular cloud collapsed. Solar formation is dated in two ways: the Sun's current main sequence age, determined using computer models of stellar evolution and nucleocosmochronology, is thought to be about 4.57 billion years. This is in close accord with the radiometric date of the oldest Solar System material, at 4.567 billion years ago.

The Sun is about halfway through its main-sequence evolution, during which nuclear fusion reactions in its core fuse hydrogen into helium. Each second, more than four million metric tons of matter are converted into energy within the Sun's core, producing neutrinos and solar radiation. At this rate, the Sun has so far converted around 100 Earth-masses of matter into energy. The Sun will spend a total of approximately 10 billion years as a main sequence star.

The Sun does not have enough mass to explode as a supernova. Instead, in about 5 billion years, it will enter a red giant phase, its outer layers expanding as the hydrogen fuel in the core is consumed and the core contracts and heats up. Helium fusion will begin when the core temperature reaches around 100 million K and will produce carbon, entering the asymptotic giant branch phase.

Life-cycle of the Sun; sizes are not drawn to scale.

Earth's fate is precarious. As a red giant, the Sun will have a maximum radius beyond the Earth's current orbit, 1 AU (1.5×1011 m), 250 times the present radius of the Sun. However, by the time it is an asymptotic giant branch star, the Sun will have lost roughly 30% of its present mass due to a stellar wind, so the orbits of the planets will move outward. If it were only for this, Earth would probably be spared, but new research suggests that Earth will be swallowed by the Sun owing to tidal interactions. Even if Earth would escape incineration in the Sun, still all its water will be boiled away and most of its atmosphere would escape into space. Even during its current life in the main sequence, the Sun is gradually becoming more luminous (about 10% every 1 billion years), and its surface temperature is slowly rising. The Sun used to be fainter in the past, which is possibly the reason life on Earth has only existed for about 1 billion years on land. The increase in solar temperatures is such that in about another billion years the surface of the Earth will likely become too hot for liquid water to exist, ending all terrestrial life.

Following the red giant phase, intense thermal pulsations will cause the Sun to throw off its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula. The only object that will remain after the outer layers are ejected is the extremely hot stellar core, which will slowly cool and fade as a white dwarf over many billions of years. This stellar evolution scenario is typical of low- to medium-mass stars.

Solar cycles

Sunspots and the sunspot cycle

Measurements of solar cycle variation during the last 30 years

When observing the Sun with appropriate filtration, the most immediately visible features are usually its sunspots, which are well-defined surface areas that appear darker than their surroundings because of lower temperatures. Sunspots are regions of intense magnetic activity where convection is inhibited by strong magnetic fields, reducing energy transport from the hot interior to the surface. The magnetic field causes strong heating in the corona, forming active regions that are the source of intense solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The largest sunspots can be tens of thousands of kilometers across.

The number of sunspots visible on the Sun is not constant, but varies over an 11-year cycle known as the solar cycle. At a typical solar minimum, few sunspots are visible, and occasionally none at all can be seen. Those that do appear are at high solar latitudes. As the sunspot cycle progresses, the number of sunspots increases and they move closer to the equator of the Sun, a phenomenon described by Spörer's law. Sunspots usually exist as pairs with opposite magnetic polarity. The magnetic polarity of the leading sunspot alternates every solar cycle, so that it will be a north magnetic pole in one solar cycle and a south magnetic pole in the next.

History of the number of observed sunspots during the last 250 years, which shows the ~11-year solar cycle

The solar cycle has a great influence on space weather, and is a significant influence on the Earth's climate since luminosity has a direct relationship with magnetic activity. Solar activity minima tend to be correlated with colder temperatures, and longer than average solar cycles tend to be correlated with hotter temperatures. In the 17th century, the solar cycle appeared to have stopped entirely for several decades; few sunspots were observed during this period. During this era, known as the Maunder minimum or Little Ice Age, Europe experienced unusually cold temperatures. Earlier extended minima have been discovered through analysis of tree rings and appear to have coincided with lower-than-average global temperatures.

Possible long-term cycle

A recent theory claims that there are magnetic instabilities in the core of the Sun that cause fluctuations with periods of either 41,000 or 100,000 years. These could provide a better explanation of the ice ages than the Milankovitch cycles.

Chemical composition of The Sun

The Sun is composed primarily of the chemical elements hydrogen and helium; they account for 74.9% and 23.8% of the mass of the Sun in the photosphere, respectively. All heavier elements, called metals in astronomy, account for less than 2% of the mass. The most abundant metals are oxygen (roughly 1% of the Sun's mass), carbon (0.3%), neon (0.2%), and iron (0.2%).

The Sun inherited its chemical composition from the interstellar medium out of which it formed: the hydrogen and helium in the Sun were produced by Big Bang nucleosynthesis. The metals were produced by stellar nucleosynthesis in generations of stars which completed their stellar evolution and returned their material to the interstellar medium before the formation of the Sun. The chemical composition of the photosphere is normally considered representative of the composition of the primordial Solar System. However, since the Sun formed, the helium and heavy elements have settled out of the photosphere. Therefore, the photosphere now contains slightly less helium and only 84% of the heavy elements than the protostellar Sun did; the protostellar Sun was 71.1% hydrogen, 27.4% helium, and 1.5% metals.

In the inner portions of the Sun, nuclear fusion has modified the composition by converting hydrogen into helium, so the innermost portion of the Sun is now roughly 60% helium, with the metal abundance unchanged. Because the interior of the Sun is radiative, not convective (see Structure above), none of the fusion products from the core have risen to the photosphere.

The solar heavy-element abundances described above are typically measured both using spectroscopy of the Sun's photosphere and by measuring abundances in meteorites that have never been heated to melting temperatures. These meteorites are thought to retain the composition of the protostellar Sun and thus not affected by settling of heavy elements. The two methods generally agree well.

Singly ionized iron group elements

In the 1970s, much research focused on the abundances of iron group elements in the Sun. Although significant research was done, the abundance determination of some iron group elements (e.g., cobalt and manganese) was still difficult at least as far as 1978 because of their hyperfine structures.

The first largely complete set of oscillator strengths of singly ionized iron group elements were made available first in the 1960s, and improved oscillator strengths were computed in 1976. In 1978 the abundances of singly ionized elements of the iron group were derived.

Solar and planetary mass fractionation relationship

Various authors have considered the existence of a mass fractionation relationship between the isotopic compositions of solar and planetary noble gases, for example correlations between isotopic compositions of planetary and solar neon and xenon. Nevertheless, the belief that the whole Sun has the same composition as the solar atmosphere was still widespread, at least until 1983.

In 1983, it was claimed that it was the fractionation in the Sun itself that caused the fractionation relationship between the isotopic compositions of planetary and solar wind implanted noble gases.

Characteristics of The Sun

The Sun is a G-type main sequence star comprising about 99.8632% of the total mass of the Solar System. It is a near-perfect sphere, with an oblateness estimated at about 9 millionths, which means that its polar diameter differs from its equatorial diameter by only 10 km. As the Sun consists of a plasma and is not solid, it rotates faster at its equator than at its poles. This behavior is known as differential rotation, and is caused by convection in the Sun and the movement of mass, due to steep temperature gradients from the core outwards. This mass carries a portion of the Sun’s counter-clockwise angular momentum, as viewed from the ecliptic north pole, thus redistributing the angular velocity. The period of this actual rotation is approximately 25.6 days at the equator and 33.5 days at the poles. However, due to our constantly changing vantage point from the Earth as it orbits the Sun, the apparent rotation of the star at its equator is about 28 days. The centrifugal effect of this slow rotation is 18 million times weaker than the surface gravity at the Sun's equator. The tidal effect of the planets is even weaker, and does not significantly affect the shape of the Sun.

The Sun is a Population I, or heavy element-rich, star. The formation of the Sun may have been triggered by shockwaves from one or more nearby supernovae. This is suggested by a high abundance of heavy elements in the Solar System, such as gold and uranium, relative to the abundances of these elements in so-called Population II (heavy element-poor) stars. These elements could most plausibly have been produced by endergonic nuclear reactions during a supernova, or by transmutation through neutron absorption inside a massive second-generation star.

The Sun shows a C3-class solar flare (white area on upper left), a solar tsunami (wave-like structure, upper right) and multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface.

The Sun does not have a definite boundary as rocky planets do, and in its outer parts the density of its gases drops exponentially with increasing distance from its center. Nevertheless, it has a well-defined interior structure, described below. The Sun's radius is measured from its center to the edge of the photosphere. This is simply the layer above which the gases are too cool or too thin to radiate a significant amount of light, and is therefore the surface most readily visible to the naked eye.

An illustration of the structure of the Sun:
1. Core
2. Radiative zone
3. Convective zone
4. Photosphere
5. Chromosphere
6. Corona
7. Sunspot
8. Granules
9. Prominence

The solar interior is not directly observable, and the Sun itself is opaque to electromagnetic radiation. However, just as seismology uses waves generated by earthquakes to reveal the interior structure of the Earth, the discipline of helioseismology makes use of pressure waves (infrasound) traversing the Sun's interior to measure and visualize the star's inner structure. Computer modeling of the Sun is also used as a theoretical tool to investigate its deeper layers.


Cross-section of a solar-type star (NASA)

The core of the Sun is considered to extend from the center to about 20–25% of the solar radius. It has a density of up to 150 g/cm3 (about 150 times the density of water) and a temperature of close to 13.6 million kelvin (K). By contrast, the Sun's surface temperature is approximately 5,800 K. Recent analysis of SOHO mission data favors a faster rotation rate in the core than in the rest of the radiative zone. Through most of the Sun's life, energy is produced by nuclear fusion through a series of steps called the p–p (proton–proton) chain; this process converts hydrogen into helium. Less than 2% of the helium generated in the Sun comes from the CNO cycle.

The core is the only region in the Sun that produces an appreciable amount of thermal energy through fusion; inside 24% of the Sun's radius, 99% of the power has been generated, and by 30% of the radius, fusion has stopped nearly entirely. The rest of the star is heated by energy that is transferred outward from the core and the layers just outside. The energy produced by fusion in the core must then travel through many successive layers to the solar photosphere before it escapes into space as sunlight or kinetic energy of particles.

The proton–proton chain occurs around 9.2×1037 times each second in the core of the Sun. Since this reaction uses four free protons (hydrogen nuclei), it converts about 3.7×1038 protons to alpha particles (helium nuclei) every second (out of a total of ~8.9×1056 free protons in the Sun), or about 6.2×1011 kg per second. Since fusing hydrogen into helium releases around 0.7% of the fused mass as energy, the Sun releases energy at the mass-energy conversion rate of 4.26 million metric tons per second, 384.6 yotta watts (3.846×1026 W), or 9.192×1010 megatons of TNT per second. This mass is not destroyed to create the energy, rather, the mass is carried away in the radiated energy, as described by the concept of mass-energy equivalence.

The power production by fusion in the core varies with distance from the solar center. At the center of the Sun, theoretical models estimate it to be approximately 276.5 watts/m3, a power production density that more nearly approximates reptile metabolism than a thermonuclear bomb.[note 2] Peak power production in the Sun has been compared to the volumetric heats generated in an active compost heap. The tremendous power output of the Sun is not due to its high power per volume, but instead due to its large size.

The fusion rate in the core is in a self-correcting equilibrium: a slightly higher rate of fusion would cause the core to heat up more and expand slightly against the weight of the outer layers, reducing the fusion rate and correcting the perturbation; and a slightly lower rate would cause the core to cool and shrink slightly, increasing the fusion rate and again reverting it to its present level.

The gamma rays (high-energy photons) released in fusion reactions are absorbed in only a few millimeters of solar plasma and then re-emitted again in random direction and at slightly lower energy. Therefore it takes a long time for radiation to reach the Sun's surface. Estimates of the photon travel time range between 10,000 and 170,000 years. Since energy transport in the Sun is a process which involves photons in thermodynamic equilibrium with matter, the time scale of energy transport in the Sun is longer, on the order of 30,000,000 years. This is the time it would take the Sun to return to a stable state if the rate of energy generation in its core were suddenly to be changed.

After a final trip through the convective outer layer to the transparent surface of the photosphere, the photons escape as visible light. Each gamma ray in the Sun's core is converted into several million photons of visible light before escaping into space. Neutrinos are also released by the fusion reactions in the core, but unlike photons they rarely interact with matter, so almost all are able to escape the Sun immediately. For many years measurements of the number of neutrinos produced in the Sun were lower than theories predicted by a factor of 3. This discrepancy was resolved in 2001 through the discovery of the effects of neutrino oscillation: the Sun emits the number of neutrinos predicted by the theory, but neutrino detectors were missing 23 of them because the neutrinos had changed flavor by the time they were detected.

Radiative zone

From about 0.25 to about 0.7 solar radii, solar material is hot and dense enough that thermal radiation is sufficient to transfer the intense heat of the core outward. This zone is free of thermal convection; while the material gets cooler from 7 to about 2 million kelvin with increasing altitude, this temperature gradient is less than the value of the adiabatic lapse rate and hence cannot drive convection. Energy is transferred by radiation—ions of hydrogen and helium emit photons, which travel only a brief distance before being reabsorbed by other ions. The density drops a hundredfold (from 20 g/cm3 to only 0.2 g/cm3) from the bottom to the top of the radiative zone.

The radiative zone and the convection form a transition layer, the tachocline. This is a region where the sharp regime change between the uniform rotation of the radiative zone and the differential rotation of the convection zone results in a large shear—a condition where successive horizontal layers slide past one another. The fluid motions found in the convection zone above, slowly disappear from the top of this layer to its bottom, matching the calm characteristics of the radiative zone on the bottom. Presently, it is hypothesized (see Solar dynamo), that a magnetic dynamo within this layer generates the Sun's magnetic field.

Convective zone

In the Sun's outer layer, from its surface down to approximately 200,000 km (or 70% of the solar radius), the solar plasma is not dense enough or hot enough to transfer the thermal energy of the interior outward through radiation; in other words it is opaque enough. As a result, thermal convection occurs as thermal columns carry hot material to the surface (photosphere) of the Sun. Once the material cools off at the surface, it plunges downward to the base of the convection zone, to receive more heat from the top of the radiative zone. At the visible surface of the Sun, the temperature has dropped to 5,700 K and the density to only 0.2 g/m3 (about 1/6,000th the density of air at sea level).

The thermal columns in the convection zone form an imprint on the surface of the Sun as the solar granulation and supergranulation. The turbulent convection of this outer part of the solar interior causes a "small-scale" dynamo that produces magnetic north and south poles all over the surface of the Sun. The Sun's thermal columns are Bénard cells and therefore tend to be hexagonal prisms.


The effective temperature, or black body temperature, of the Sun (5777 K) is the temperature a black body of the same size must have to yield the same total emissive power.

The visible surface of the Sun, the photosphere, is the layer below which the Sun becomes opaque to visible light. Above the photosphere visible sunlight is free to propagate into space, and its energy escapes the Sun entirely. The change in opacity is due to the decreasing amount of H ions, which absorb visible light easily. Conversely, the visible light we see is produced as electrons react with hydrogen atoms to produce H ions. The photosphere is tens to hundreds of kilometers thick, being slightly less opaque than air on Earth. Because the upper part of the photosphere is cooler than the lower part, an image of the Sun appears brighter in the center than on the edge or limb of the solar disk, in a phenomenon known as limb darkening. Sunlight has approximately a black-body spectrum that indicates its temperature is about 6,000 K, interspersed with atomic absorption lines from the tenuous layers above the photosphere. The photosphere has a particle density of ~1023 m−3 (this is about 0.37% of the particle number per volume of Earth's atmosphere at sea level; however, photosphere particles are electrons and protons, so the average particle in air is 58 times as heavy).

During early studies of the optical spectrum of the photosphere, some absorption lines were found that did not correspond to any chemical elements then known on Earth. In 1868, Norman Lockyer hypothesized that these absorption lines were because of a new element which he dubbed helium, after the Greek Sun god Helios. It was not until 25 years later that helium was isolated on Earth.


During a total solar eclipse, the solar corona can be seen with the naked eye, during the brief period of totality.

The parts of the Sun above the photosphere are referred to collectively as the solar atmosphere. They can be viewed with telescopes operating across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio through visible light to gamma rays, and comprise five principal zones: the temperature minimum, the chromosphere, the transition region, the corona, and the heliosphere. The heliosphere, which may be considered the tenuous outer atmosphere of the Sun, extends outward past the orbit of Pluto to the heliopause, where it forms a sharp shock front boundary with the interstellar medium. The chromosphere, transition region, and corona are much hotter than the surface of the Sun. The reason has not been conclusively proven; evidence suggests that Alfvén waves may have enough energy to heat the corona.

The coolest layer of the Sun is a temperature minimum region about 500 km above the photosphere, with a temperature of about 4,100 K. This part of the Sun is cool enough to support simple molecules such as carbon monoxide and water, which can be detected by their absorption spectra.

Above the temperature minimum layer is a layer about 2,000 km thick, dominated by a spectrum of emission and absorption lines. It is called the chromosphere from the Greek root chroma, meaning color, because the chromosphere is visible as a colored flash at the beginning and end of total eclipses of the Sun. The temperature in the chromosphere increases gradually with altitude, ranging up to around 20,000 K near the top. In the upper part of chromosphere helium becomes partially ionized.

Taken by Hinode's Solar Optical Telescope on January 12, 2007, this image of the Sun reveals the filamentary nature of the plasma connecting regions of different magnetic polarity.

Above the chromosphere, in a thin (about 200 km) transition region, the temperature rises rapidly from around 20,000 K in the upper chromosphere to coronal temperatures closer to 1,000,000 K. The temperature increase is facilitated by the full ionization of helium in the transition region, which significantly reduces radiative cooling of the plasma. The transition region does not occur at a well-defined altitude. Rather, it forms a kind of nimbus around chromospheric features such as spicules and filaments, and is in constant, chaotic motion. The transition region is not easily visible from Earth's surface, but is readily observable from space by instruments sensitive to the extreme ultraviolet portion of the spectrum.

The corona is the extended outer atmosphere of the Sun, which is much larger in volume than the Sun itself. The corona continuously expands into space forming the solar wind, which fills all the Solar System. The low corona, near the surface of the Sun, has a particle density around 1015–1016 m−3. The average temperature of the corona and solar wind is about 1,000,000–2,000,000 K; however, in the hottest regions it is 8,000,000–20,000,000 K. While no complete theory yet exists to account for the temperature of the corona, at least some of its heat is known to be from magnetic reconnection.

The heliosphere, which is the cavity around the Sun filled with the solar wind plasma, extends from approximately 20 solar radii (0.1 AU) to the outer fringes of the Solar System. Its inner boundary is defined as the layer in which the flow of the solar wind becomes superalfvénic—that is, where the flow becomes faster than the speed of Alfvén waves. Turbulence and dynamic forces outside this boundary cannot affect the shape of the solar corona within, because the information can only travel at the speed of Alfvén waves. The solar wind travels outward continuously through the heliosphere, forming the solar magnetic field into a spiral shape, until it impacts the heliopause more than 50 AU from the Sun. In December 2004, the Voyager 1 probe passed through a shock front that is thought to be part of the heliopause. Both of the Voyager probes have recorded higher levels of energetic particles as they approach the boundary.

Magnetic field

The heliospheric current sheetplasma in the interplanetary medium. extends to the outer reaches of the Solar System, and results from the influence of the Sun's rotating magnetic field on the

The Sun is a magnetically active star. It supports a strong, changing magnetic field that varies year-to-year and reverses direction about every eleven years around solar maximum. The Sun's magnetic field leads to many effects that are collectively called solar activity, including sunspots on the surface of the Sun, solar flares, and variations in solar wind that carry material through the Solar System. Effects of solar activity on Earth include auroras at moderate to high latitudes, and the disruption of radio communications and electric power. Solar activity is thought to have played a large role in the formation and evolution of the Solar System. Solar activity changes the structure of Earth's outer atmosphere.

All matter in the Sun is in the form of gas and plasma because of its high temperatures. This makes it possible for the Sun to rotate faster at its equator (about 25 days) than it does at higher latitudes (about 35 days near its poles). The differential rotation of the Sun's latitudes causes its magnetic field lines to become twisted together over time, causing magnetic field loops to erupt from the Sun's surface and trigger the formation of the Sun's dramatic sunspots and solar prominences (see magnetic reconnection). This twisting action creates the solar dynamo and an 11-year solar cycle of magnetic activity as the Sun's magnetic field reverses itself about every 11 years.

The solar magnetic field extends well beyond the Sun itself. The magnetized solar wind plasma carries Sun's magnetic field into the space forming what is called the interplanetary magnetic field. Since the plasma can only move along the magnetic field lines, the interplanetary magnetic field is initially stretched radially away from the Sun. Because the fields above and below the solar equator have different polarities pointing towards and away from the Sun, there exists a thin current layer in the solar equatorial plane, which is called the heliospheric current sheet. At the large distances the rotation of the Sun twists the magnetic field and the current sheet into the Archimedean spiral like structure called the Parker spiral. The interplanetary magnetic field is much stronger than the dipole component of the solar magnetic field. The Sun's 50–400 μT (in the photosphere) magnetic dipole field reduces with the cube of the distance to about 0.1 nT at the distance of the Earth. However, according to spacecraft observations the interplanetary field at the Earth's location is about 100 times greater at around 5 nT.

The Sun

The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields. It has a diameter of about 1,392,000 km, about 109 times that of Earth, and its mass (about 2×1030 kilograms, 330,000 times that of Earth) accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Chemically, about three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen, while the rest is mostly helium. Less than 2% consists of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, iron, and others.

The Sun by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of  NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory - 20100819.jpg

The Sun's stellar classification, based on spectral class, is G2V, and is informally designated as a yellow dwarf, because its visible radiation is most intense in the yellow-green portion of the spectrum and although its color is white, from the surface of the Earth it may appear yellow because of atmospheric scattering of blue light. In the spectral class label, G2 indicates its surface temperature of approximately 5778 K (5505 °C), and V indicates that the Sun, like most stars, is a main-sequence star, and thus generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. In its core, the Sun fuses 620 million metric tons of hydrogen each second. Once regarded by astronomers as a small and relatively insignificant star, the Sun is now thought to be brighter than about 85% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, most of which are red dwarfs. The absolute magnitude of the Sun is +4.83; however, as the star closest to Earth, the Sun is the brightest object in the sky with an apparent magnitude of −26.74. The Sun's hot corona continuously expands in space creating the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that extends to the heliopause at roughly 100 astronomical units. The bubble in the interstellar medium formed by the solar wind, the heliosphere, is the largest continuous structure in the Solar System.

The Sun is currently traveling through the Local Interstellar Cloud in the Local Bubble zone, within the inner rim of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Of the 50 nearest stellar systems within 17 light-years from Earth (the closest being a red dwarf named Proxima Centauri at approximately 4.2 light years away), the Sun ranks fourth in mass. The Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way at a distance of approximately 24,00026,000 light years from the galactic center, completing one clockwise orbit, as viewed from the galactic north pole, in about 225–250 million years. Since our galaxy is moving with respect to the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in the direction of the constellation Hydra with a speed of 550 km/s, the Sun's resultant velocity with respect to the CMB is about 370 km/s in the direction of Crater or Leo.

The mean distance of the Sun from the Earth is approximately 149.6 million kilometers (1 AU), though the distance varies as the Earth moves from perihelion in January to aphelion in July. At this average distance, light travels from the Sun to Earth in about 8 minutes and 19 seconds. The energy of this sunlight supports almost all life on Earth by photosynthesis, and drives Earth's climate and weather. The enormous effect of the Sun on the Earth has been recognized since prehistoric times, and the Sun has been regarded by some cultures as a deity. An accurate scientific understanding of the Sun developed slowly, and as recently as the 19th century prominent scientists had little knowledge of the Sun's physical composition and source of energy. This understanding is still developing; there are a number of present-day anomalies in the Sun's behavior that remain unexplained.

Ongoing research about Tornado

Meteorology is a relatively young science and the study of tornadoes is newer still. Although researched for about 140 years and intensively for around 60 years, there are still aspects of tornadoes which remain a mystery. Scientists have a fairly good understanding of the development of thunderstorms and mesocyclones, and the meteorological conditions conducive to their formation. However, the step from supercell (or other respective formative processes) to tornadogenesis and predicting tornadic vs. non-tornadic mesocyclones is not yet well known and is the focus of much research.

A Doppler On Wheels unit observing a tornado near Attica, Kansas

Also under study are the low-level mesocyclone and the stretching of low-level vorticity which tightens into a tornado, namely, what are the processes and what is the relationship of the environment and the convective storm. Intense tornadoes have been observed forming simultaneously with a mesocyclone aloft (rather than succeeding mesocyclogenesis) and some intense tornadoes have occurred without a mid-level mesocyclone. In particular, the role of downdrafts, particularly the rear-flank downdraft, and the role of baroclinic boundaries, are intense areas of study.

Reliably predicting tornado intensity and longevity remains a problem, as do details affecting characteristics of a tornado during its life cycle and tornadolysis. Other rich areas of research are tornadoes associated with mesovortices within linear thunderstorm structures and within tropical cyclones.

Scientists still do not know the exact mechanisms by which most tornadoes form, and occasional tornadoes still strike without a tornado warning being issued. Analysis of observations including both stationary and mobile (surface and aerial) in-situ and remote sensing (passive and active) instruments generates new ideas and refines existing notions. Numerical modeling also provides new insights as observations and new discoveries are integrated into our physical understanding and then tested in computer simulations which validate new notions as well as produce entirely new theoretical findings, many of which are otherwise unattainable. Importantly, development of new observation technologies and installation of finer spatial and temporal resolution observation networks have aided increased understanding and better predictions.

Research programs, including field projects such as the VORTEX projects (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment), deployment of TOTO (the TOtable Tornado Observatory), Doppler On Wheels (DOW), and dozens of other programs, hope to solve many questions that still plague meteorologists. Universities, government agencies such as the National Severe Storms Laboratory, private-sector meteorologists, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research are some of the organizations very active in research; with various sources of funding, both private and public, a chief entity being the National Science Foundation.

Myths and misconceptions about Tornado

Folklore often identifies a green sky with tornadoes, and though the phenomenon may be associated with severe weather, there is no evidence linking it specifically with tornadoes. It is often thought that opening windows will lessen the damage caused by the tornado. While there is a large drop in atmospheric pressure inside a strong tornado, it is unlikely that the pressure drop would be enough to cause the house to explode. Some research indicates that opening windows may actually increase the severity of the tornado's damage. A violent tornado can destroy a house whether its windows are open or closed.

Salt Lake City Tornado, August 11, 1999. This tornado disproved several misconceptions, including the idea that tornadoes cannot occur in areas like Utah or in cities.

Another commonly held belief is that highway overpasses provide adequate shelter from tornadoes. On the contrary, a highway overpass is a dangerous place during a tornado. In the 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak of May 3, 1999, three highway overpasses were directly struck by tornadoes, and at all three locations there was a fatality, along with many life-threatening injuries. The small area under the overpasses is believed to cause a Venturi effect. By comparison, during the same tornado outbreak, more than 2000 homes were completely destroyed, with another 7000 damaged, and yet only a few dozen people died in their homes.

An old belief is that the southwest corner of a basement provides the most protection during a tornado. The safest place is the side or corner of an underground room opposite the tornado's direction of approach (usually the northeast corner), or the central-most room on the lowest floor. Taking shelter in a basement, under a staircase, or under a sturdy piece of furniture such as a workbench further increases chances of survival.

Finally, there are areas which people believe to be protected from tornadoes, whether by being in a city, near a major river, hill, or mountain, or even protected by supernatural forces. Tornadoes have been known to cross major rivers, climb mountains, affect valleys, and have damaged several city centers. As a general rule, no area is "safe" from tornadoes, though some areas are more susceptible than others.

One long-held myth was that no city whose name begins with the letter X would ever be hit by a tornado, the letter X as an initial letter of a place-name in the United States being extremely rare—until Xenia, Ohio experienced an F-5 tornado that killed 34 people in 1974.

Safety From Tornado

Though tornadoes can strike in an instant, there are precautions and preventative measures that people can take to increase the chances of surviving a tornado. Authorities such as the Storm Prediction Center advise having a pre-determined plan should a tornado warning be issued. When a warning is issued, going to a basement or an interior first-floor room of a sturdy building greatly increases chances of survival. In tornado-prone areas, many buildings have storm cellars on the property. These underground refuges have saved thousands of lives.

Some countries have meteorological agencies which distribute tornado forecasts and increase levels of alert of a possible tornado (such as tornado watches and warnings in the United States and Canada). Weather radios provide an alarm when a severe weather advisory is issued for the local area, though these are mainly available only in the United States. Unless the tornado is far away and highly visible, meteorologists advise that drivers park their vehicles far to the side of the road (so as not to block emergency traffic), and find a sturdy shelter. If no sturdy shelter is nearby, getting low in a ditch is the next best option. Highway overpasses are one of the worst places to take shelter during tornadoes, as they are believed to create a Venturi effect, increasing the danger from the tornado by increasing the wind speed and funneling debris underneath the overpass.

Extremes of Tornado

The most extreme tornado in recorded history was the Tri-State Tornado, which roared through parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. It was likely an F5, though tornadoes were not ranked on any scale in that era. It holds records for longest path length (219 miles, 352 km), longest duration (about 3.5 hours), and fastest forward speed for a significant tornado (73 mph, 117 km/h) anywhere on Earth. In addition, it is the deadliest single tornado in United States history (695 dead). The tornado was also the second costliest tornado in history at the time, but in the years since has been surpassed by several others if population changes over time are not considered. When costs are normalized for wealth and inflation, it ranks third today.

A map of the tornado paths in the Super Outbreak (April 3–4, 1974)

The deadliest tornado in world history was the Daultipur-Salturia Tornado in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989, which killed approximately 1300 people. Bangladesh has had at least 19 tornadoes in its history kill more than 100 people, almost half of the total in the rest of the world.

The most extensive tornado outbreak on record was the Super Outbreak, which affected a large area of the central United States and extreme southern Ontario in Canada on April 3 and 4, 1974. This outbreak, which saw 148 tornadoes develop in 18 hours, included six of F5 intensity and twenty-four that peaked at F4 strength. Sixteen tornadoes were on the ground at the same time during its peak. More than 300 people, possibly as many as 330, were killed by tornadoes during this outbreak.

While direct measurement of the most violent tornado wind speeds is nearly impossible, since conventional anemometers would be destroyed by the intense winds, some tornadoes have been scanned by mobile Doppler radar units, which can provide a good estimate of the tornado's winds. The highest wind speed ever measured in a tornado, which is also the highest wind speed ever recorded on the planet, is 301 ± 20 mph (484 ± 32 km/h) in the F5 Bridge Creek-Moore, Oklahoma, tornado which killed 36 people. Though the reading was taken about 100 feet (30 m) above the ground, this is a testament to the power of the strongest tornadoes.

Storms that produce tornadoes can feature intense updrafts, sometimes exceeding 150 mph (240 km/h). Debris from a tornado can be lofted into the parent storm and carried a very long distance. A tornado which affected Great Bend, Kansas, in November 1915, was an extreme case, where a "rain of debris" occurred 80 miles (130 km) from the town, a sack of flour was found 110 miles (180 km) away, and a cancelled check from the Great Bend bank was found in a field outside of Palmyra, Nebraska, 305 miles (491 km) to the northeast. Waterspouts and tornadoes have been advanced as an explanation for instances of raining fish and other animals.

Detection of Tornado

Rigorous attempts to warn of tornadoes began in the United States in the mid-20th century. Before the 1950s, the only method of detecting a tornado was by someone seeing it on the ground. Often, news of a tornado would reach a local weather office after the storm. However, with the advent of weather radar, areas near a local office could get advance warning of severe weather. The first public tornado warnings were issued in 1950 and the first tornado watches and convective outlooks in 1952. In 1953 it was confirmed that hook echoes are associated with tornadoes. By recognizing these radar signatures, meteorologists could detect thunderstorms probably producing tornadoes from dozens of miles away.


Today, most developed countries have a network of weather radars, which remains the main method of detecting signatures probably associated with tornadoes. In the United States and a few other countries, Doppler weather radar stations are used. These devices measure the velocity and radial direction (towards or away from the radar) of the winds in a storm, and so can spot evidence of rotation in storms from more than a hundred miles (160 km) away. When storms are distant from a radar, only areas high within the storm are observed and the important areas below are not sampled. Data resolution also decreases with distance from the radar. Some meteorological situations leading to tornadogenesis are not readily detectable by radar and on occasion tornado development may occur more quickly than radar can complete a scan and send the batch of data. Also, most populated areas on Earth are now visible from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), which aid in the nowcasting of tornadic storms.

A Doppler on Wheels radar loop of a hook echo and associated mesocyclone in Goshen County, Wyoming on June 5, 2009. Strong mesocyclones show up as adjacent areas of yellow and blue (on other radars, bright red and bright green), and usually indicate an imminent or occurring tornado.

Storm spotting

In the mid-1970s, the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) increased its efforts to train storm spotters to spot key features of storms which indicate severe hail, damaging winds, and tornadoes, as well as damage itself and flash flooding. The program was called Skywarn, and the spotters were local sheriff's deputies, state troopers, firefighters, ambulance drivers, amateur radio operators, civil defense (now emergency management) spotters, storm chasers, and ordinary citizens. When severe weather is anticipated, local weather service offices request that these spotters look out for severe weather, and report any tornadoes immediately, so that the office can warn of the hazard.

Usually spotters are trained by the NWS on behalf of their respective organizations, and report to them. The organizations activate public warning systems such as sirens and the Emergency Alert System, and forward the report to the NWS. There are more than 230,000 trained Skywarn weather spotters across the United States.

In Canada, a similar network of volunteer weather watchers, called Canwarn, helps spot severe weather, with more than 1,000 volunteers. In Europe, several nations are organizing spotter networks under the auspices of Skywarn Europe and the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) has maintained a network of spotters in the United Kingdom since 1974.

Storm spotters are needed because radar systems such as NEXRAD do not detect a tornado; merely signatures which hint at the presence of tornadoes. Radar may give a warning before there is any visual evidence of a tornado or imminent tornado, but ground truth from an observer can either verify the threat or determine that a tornado is not imminent. The spotter's ability to see what radar cannot is especially important as distance from the radar site increases, because the radar beam becomes progressively higher in altitude further away from the radar, chiefly due to curvature of Earth, and the beam also spreads out.

Visual evidence

A rotating wall cloud with rear flank downdraft clear slot evident to its left rear

Storm spotters are trained to discern whether a storm seen from a distance is a supercell. They typically look to its rear, the main region of updraft and inflow. Under the updraft is a rain-free base, and the next step of tornadogenesis is the formation of a rotating wall cloud. The vast majority of intense tornadoes occur with a wall cloud on the backside of a supercell.

Evidence of a supercell comes from the storm's shape and structure, and cloud tower features such as a hard and vigorous updraft tower, a persistent, large overshooting top, a hard anvil (especially when backsheared against strong upper level winds), and a corkscrew look or striations. Under the storm and closer to where most tornadoes are found, evidence of a supercell and likelihood of a tornado includes inflow bands (particularly when curved) such as a "beaver tail", and other clues such as strength of inflow, warmth and moistness of inflow air, how outflow- or inflow-dominant a storm appears, and how far is the front flank precipitation core from the wall cloud. Tornadogenesis is most likely at the interface of the updraft and rear flank downdraft, and requires a balance between the outflow and inflow.

Only wall clouds that rotate spawn tornadoes, and usually precede the tornado by five to thirty minutes. Rotating wall clouds are the visual manifestation of a mesocyclone. Barring a low-level boundary, tornadogenesis is highly unlikely unless a rear flank downdraft occurs, which is usually visibly evidenced by evaporation of cloud adjacent to a corner of a wall cloud. A tornado often occurs as this happens or shortly after; first, a funnel cloud dips and in nearly all cases by the time it reaches halfway down, a surface swirl has already developed, signifying a tornado is on the ground before condensation connects the surface circulation to the storm. Tornadoes may also occur without wall clouds, under flanking lines, and on the leading edge. Spotters watch all areas of a storm, and the cloud base and surface.


Areas worldwide where tornadoes are most likely, indicated by orange shading

The United States has the most tornadoes of any country, nearly four times more than estimated in all of Europe, excluding waterspouts. This is mostly due to the unique geography of the continent. North America is a large continent that extends from the tropics north into arctic areas, and has no major east-west mountain range to block air flow between these two areas. In the middle latitudes, where most tornadoes of the world occur, the Rocky Mountains block moisture and buckle the atmospheric flow, forcing drier air at mid-levels of the troposphere due to downsloped winds, and causing the formation of a low pressure area downwind to the east of the mountains. Increased westerly flow off the Rockies force the formation of a dry line when the flow aloft is strong, while the Gulf of Mexico fuels abundant low-level moisture in the southerly flow to its east. This unique topography allows for frequent collisions of warm and cold air, the conditions that breed strong, long-lived storms throughout the year. A large portion of these tornadoes form in an area of the central United States known as Tornado Alley. This area extends into Canada, particularly Ontario and the Prairie Provinces, although southeast Quebec, the interior of British Columbia, and western New Brunswick are also tornado-prone. Tornadoes also occur across northeastern Mexico.

The United States averages about 1,200 tornadoes per year. The Netherlands has the highest average number of recorded tornadoes per area of any country (more than 20, or 0.0013 per sq mi (0.00048 per km2), annually), followed by the UK (around 33, or 0.00035 per sq mi (0.00013 per km2), per year), but most are small and cause minor damage. In absolute number of events, ignoring area, the UK experiences more tornadoes than any other European country, excluding waterspouts.

Intense tornado activity in the United States. The darker-colored areas denote the area commonly referred to as Tornado Alley.

Tornadoes kill an average of 179 people per year in Bangladesh, the most in the world. This is due to high population density, poor quality of construction and lack of tornado safety knowledge, as well as other factors. Other areas of the world that have frequent tornadoes include South Africa, parts of Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, as well as portions of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and far eastern Asia.

Tornadoes are most common in spring and least common in winter. Spring and fall experience peaks of activity as those are the seasons when stronger winds, wind shear, and atmospheric instability are present. Tornadoes are focused in the right front quadrant of landfalling tropical cyclones, which tend to occur in the late summer and autumn. Tornadoes can also be spawned as a result of eyewall mesovortices, which persist until landfall. Favorable conditions can occur any time of the year.

Tornado occurrence is highly dependent on the time of day, because of solar heating. Worldwide, most tornadoes occur in the late afternoon, between 3 pm and 7 pm local time, with a peak near 5 pm. Destructive tornadoes can occur at any time of day. The Gainesville Tornado of 1936, one of the deadliest tornadoes in history, occurred at 8:30 am local time.

Associations with climate and climate change

Associations to various climate and environmental trends exist. For example, an increase in the sea surface temperature of a source region (e.g. Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean Sea) increases atmospheric moisture content. Increased moisture can fuel an increase in severe weather and tornado activity, particularly in the cool season.

Some evidence does suggest that the Southern Oscillation is weakly correlated with changes in tornado activity, which vary by season and region, as well as whether the ENSO phase is that of El Niño or La Niña.

Climatic shifts may affect tornadoes via teleconnections in shifting the jet stream and the larger weather patterns. The climate-tornado link is confounded by the forces affecting larger patterns and by the local, nuanced nature of tornadoes. Although it is reasonable that global warming may affect trends in tornado activity, any such effect is not yet identifiable due to the complexity, local nature of the storms, and database quality issues. Any effect would vary by region.

Intensity and damages of Tornado

An example of EF1 damage. Here, the roof has been substantially damaged, and the garage door blown outwards, but the walls and supporting structures are still intact.

The Fujita scale and the Enhanced Fujita Scale rate tornadoes by damage caused. The Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale was an upgrade to the older Fujita scale, by expert elicitation, using engineered wind estimates and better damage descriptions. The EF Scale was designed so that a tornado rated on the Fujita scale would receive the same numerical rating, and was implemented starting in the United States in 2007. An EF0 tornado will probably damage trees but not substantial structures, whereas an EF5 tornado can rip buildings off their foundations leaving them bare and even deform large skyscrapers. The similar TORRO scale ranges from a T0 for extremely weak tornadoes to T11 for the most powerful known tornadoes. Doppler weather radar data, photogrammetry, and ground swirl patterns (cycloidal marks) may also be analyzed to determine intensity and award a rating. Tornadoes vary in intensity regardless of shape, size, and location, though strong tornadoes are typically larger than weak tornadoes. The association with track length and duration also varies, although longer track tornadoes tend to be stronger. In the case of violent tornadoes, only a small portion of the path is of violent intensity, most of the higher intensity from subvortices.

In the United States, 80% of tornadoes are EF0 and EF1 (T0 through T3) tornadoes. The rate of occurrence drops off quickly with increasing strength—less than 1% are violent tornadoes (EF4, T8 or stronger). Outside Tornado Alley, and North America in general, violent tornadoes are extremely rare. This is apparently mostly due to the lesser number of tornadoes overall, as research shows that tornado intensity distributions are fairly similar worldwide. A few significant tornadoes occur annually in Europe, Asia, southern Africa, and southeastern South America, respectively.

Types of Tornado

Multiple vortex

A multiple-vortex tornadoDallas, Texas on April 2, 1957.

A multiple-vortex tornado is a type of tornado in which two or more columns of spinning air rotate around a common center. Multivortex structure can occur in almost any circulation, but is very often observed in intense tornadoes. These vortices often create small areas of heavier damage along the main tornado path. This is a distinct phenomenon from a satellite tornado, which is a weaker tornado which forms very near a large, strong tornado contained within the same mesocyclone. The satellite tornado may appear to "orbit" the larger tornado (hence the name), giving the appearance of one, large multi-vortex tornado. However, a satellite tornado is a distinct circulation, and is much smaller than the main funnel.


A waterspout near the Florida Keys.

A waterspout is defined by the National Weather Service as a tornado over water. However, researchers typically distinguish "fair weather" waterspouts from tornadic waterspouts. Fair weather waterspouts are less severe but far more common, and are similar to dust devils and landspouts. They form at the bases of cumulus congestus clouds over tropical and subtropical waters. They have relatively weak winds, smooth laminar walls, and typically travel very slowly. They occur most commonly in the Florida Keys and in the northern Adriatic Sea. In contrast, tornadic waterspouts are stronger tornadoes over water. They form over water similarly to mesocyclonic tornadoes, or are stronger tornadoes which cross over water. Since they form from severe thunderstorms and can be far more intense, faster, and longer-lived than fair weather waterspouts, they are more dangerous.


A landspout, or dust-tube tornado, is a tornado not associated with a mesocyclone. The name stems from their characterization as a "fair weather waterspout on land". Waterspouts and landspouts share many defining characteristics, including relative weakness, short lifespan, and a small, smooth condensation funnel which often does not reach the surface. Landspouts also create a distinctively laminar cloud of dust when they make contact with the ground, due to their differing mechanics from true mesoform tornadoes. Though usually weaker than classic tornadoes, they can produce strong winds which could cause serious damage.

Similar circulations


A dust devil in Arizona

A gustnado, or gust front tornado, is a small, vertical swirl associated with a gust front or downburst. Because they are not connected with a cloud base, there is some debate as to whether or not gustnadoes are tornadoes. They are formed when fast moving cold, dry outflow air from a thunderstorm is blown through a mass of stationary, warm, moist air near the outflow boundary, resulting in a "rolling" effect (often exemplified through a roll cloud). If low level wind shear is strong enough, the rotation can be turned vertically or diagonally and make contact with the ground. The result is a gustnado. They usually cause small areas of heavier rotational wind damage among areas of straight-line wind damage.

Dust devil

A dust devil resembles a tornado in that it is a vertical swirling column of air. However, they form under clear skies and are no stronger than the weakest tornadoes. They form when a strong convective updraft is formed near the ground on a hot day. If there is enough low level wind shear, the column of hot, rising air can develop a small cyclonic motion that can be seen near the ground. They are not considered tornadoes because they form during fair weather and are not associated with any clouds. However, they can, on occasion, result in major damage in arid areas.

Fire whirls and steam devils

Small-scale, tornado-like circulations can occur near any intense surface heat source. Those that occur near intense wildfires are called fire whirls. They are not considered tornadoes, except in the rare case where they connect to a pyrocumulus or other cumuliform cloud above. Fire whirls usually are not as strong as tornadoes associated with thunderstorms. They can, however, produce significant damage. A steam devil is a rotating updraft that involves steam or smoke. Steam devils are very rare. They most often form from smoke issuing from a power plant smokestack. Hot springs and deserts may also be suitable locations for a steam devil to form. The phenomenon can occur over water, when cold arctic air passes over relatively warm water.