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Life Cycle of Tornado

Supercell relationship

Tornadoes often develop from a class of thunderstorms known as supercells. Supercells contain mesocyclones, an area of organized rotation a few miles up in the atmosphere, usually 1–6 miles (2–10 km) across. Most intense tornadoes (EF3 to EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale) develop from supercells. In addition to tornadoes, very heavy rain, frequent lightning, strong wind gusts, and hail are common in such storms.

A sequence of images showing the birth of a tornado. First, the rotating cloud base lowers. This lowering becomes a funnel, which continues descending while winds build near the surface, kicking up dust and other debris. Finally, the visible funnel extends to the ground, and the tornado begins causing major damage. This tornado, near Dimmitt, Texas, was one of the best-observed violent tornadoes in history.

Most tornadoes from supercells follow a recognizable life cycle. That begins when increasing rainfall drags with it an area of quickly descending air known as the rear flank downdraft (RFD). This downdraft accelerates as it approaches the ground, and drags the supercell's rotating mesocyclone towards the ground with it.


As the mesocyclone approaches the ground, a visible condensation funnel appears to descend from the base of the storm, often from a rotating wall cloud. As the funnel descends, the RFD also reaches the ground, creating a gust front that can cause damage a good distance from the tornado. Usually, the funnel cloud becomes a tornado within minutes of the RFD reaching the ground.


Initially, the tornado has a good source of warm, moist inflow to power it, so it grows until it reaches the "mature stage". This can last anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour, and during that time a tornado often causes the most damage, and in rare cases can be more than one mile (1.6 km) across. Meanwhile, the RFD, now an area of cool surface winds, begins to wrap around the tornado, cutting off the inflow of warm air which feeds the tornado.


As the RFD completely wraps around and chokes off the tornado's air supply, the vortex begins to weaken, and become thin and rope-like. This is the "dissipating stage"; often lasting no more than a few minutes, after which the tornado fizzles. During this stage the shape of the tornado becomes highly influenced by the winds of the parent storm, and can be blown into fantastic patterns. Even though the tornado is dissipating, it is still capable of causing damage. The storm is contracting into a rope-like tube and, like the ice skater who pulls her arms in to spin faster, winds can increase at this point.

As the tornado enters the dissipating stage, its associated mesocyclone often weakens as well, as the rear flank downdraft cuts off the inflow powering it. In particular, intense supercells tornadoes can develop cyclically. As the first mesocyclone and associated tornado dissipate, the storm's inflow may be concentrated into a new area closer to the center of the storm. If a new mesocyclone develops, the cycle may start again, producing one or more new tornadoes. Occasionally, the old (occluded) mesocyclone and the new mesocyclone produce a tornado at the same time.

Although this is a widely accepted theory for how most tornadoes form, live, and die, it does not explain the formation of smaller tornadoes, such as landspouts, long-lived tornadoes, or tornadoes with multiple vortices. These each have different mechanisms which influence their development—however, most tornadoes follow a pattern similar to this one.