How do tornadoes form?

Scientific American has a great video that quickly explains the basics of tornado formation — facts that also help explain why some parts of the country, including Oklahoma, are more prone to tornadoes than others. You'll also learn about worst tornado in recorded history, which killed more than 700 people.

The photo above was taken near Moore, Oklahoma yesterday. My father lives in Oklahoma City (thankfully, outside the path of this monster), and this shot comes from a friend of a friend of his, who wished to remain anonymous.


  1. This explanation for tornadoes is really quite mechanistic.  It’s kind of hard to accept, given that, in a general sense, vortices much more naturally follow from the right-hand rule (an electromagnetic phenomenon).  If you review the anecdotal testimony from people who have survived being inside of a tornado, you’ll occasionally hear them talk of the tornadoes’ inner walls being illuminated — another clue that what we are possibly seeing here is an electromagnetic plasma-based phenomenon.

    This mechanistic worldview has somehow managed to survive the observation in the 50’s that charged particles have been observed just about everywhere above the ionosphere that we’ve sent space probes; as well as the realization that we see cosmic electromagnetic activity that is orders of magnitude larger than the visible optical spectrum; it persists despite an abundance of cosmic synchrotron radiation, which indicates charged particles spiraling in magnetic fields; the presence of radio noise emanating from the Milky Way galaxy; the observation of magnetic fields — which in the laboratory goes hand-in-hand with electric currents — associated with galaxies and even the interstellar medium itself; and radio astronomer, Gerrit Verschuur’s claim that the interstellar “clouds” are not at all cloud-like — but rather highly filamentary and even knotted (the morphology we see associated with laboratory plasmas conducting electrical currents).  The icing on the cake has been Verschuur’s observation of critical ionization velocities associated with the knots in these filaments, which he’s published in the Astrophysical Journal a number of times, and which is indicative of charged particles slamming at very high velocity into neutral particles.

    People seem to generally not realize that the ionosphere is this paper-thin region which, unlike space, is dominated by gases, liquids and solids rather than plasma.  Rotation in a plasma tends to indicate electromagnetic activity due to the right-hand rule which we learned about in high school physics class — which begs the question:

    Is the tornado vortex really just a mechanical phenomenon?  The explanation for how the vortex becomes vertical in the Scientific American video is really quite ad hoc, and includes a “magical” step where it is admitted that scientists are unsure of how it happens.  Have all of the sequence of events actually been witnessed?

    Rather than suggest that we already know the answer, sometimes in science it’s important to teach people (especially students!) about areas of uncertainty in science.  If we portray science as simply a collection of facts, then they will memorize it; they will confuse critical thinking for pseudoscience; and by suggesting that we already understand the phenomenon when in fact there exists some uncertainty, which they can play a part in clarifying, we can actually decrease their motivation for investigating it further, as a scientist would.  The fact is that when we tell students what the answers are, these are not at all the same brain regions which activate during scientific discovery and critical thinking.

  2. the best tornadoes form in the rear view mirror and quickly get smaller in exact inverse proportion to the speed of the vehicle.

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