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TED Ed: How Do Tornadoes Form?

I’m not scared of much in nature. Thunder? No biggie. Cockroaches? Stay out of my way.

But tornadoes? They freak me out. I mean 200 mile-per-hour winds that can lift a train or car like a toy? No, thank you.

I’ve only seen one. It was small and bumped into an office building while I was inside. The place shook, but that was it. They called all clear and I drove home, fast. The sky was full of swirly clouds and an eerie yellow-greenish color I’d never seen before. My knuckles were white the whole way home.

That’s why I’m so amazed by people who chase after tornadoes, such as Meteorologist James Spann. His 4-minute, animated lesson on how tornadoes form will help you understand this terrifying natural phenomenon. (Best for ages ten and up.)

Typical Conditions for a Tornado

As Spann points out, we’ve learned a great deal about tornadoes, but there’s much we don’t know. Such as why there can be two identical conditions, yet a tornado may form in one case but not in the other. But here is a typical scenario:

  1. Tornadoes begin in massive thunderstorms called supercells that can rise 50,000 feet high.
  2. It must create rapid updrafts of hot air masses.
  3. As the air masses climb, they can change direction and move more quickly.
  4. With the storm’s moisture “feeding” the air masses, a vortex—or tube of spinning air—can form.
  5. Cooler air gets drawn around the spinning air and creates a downdraft.
  6. Between warm air spinning inside and cooler air wrapping around and pulling down the vortex outside, you can get a big, bad tornado.

View the whole lesson for a fuller understanding:

The “Dig Deeper” section has links to a lot more fun learning:

As for me, I’m happy to learn about tornadoes, but from the safety of my armchair!


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Michael Solow

Michael Solow has worked as a teacher, journalist, and commercial writer/creative director. Michael has also taught high school English and junior high math, gaining his teaching certification from Vassar College and a master's degree in the teaching of writing and literature from George Mason University. His writing has been published in the New York Times, the San Francisco Review of Books,, and the Hemingway Review. He is the proud dad of two grown daughters and the happy husband of an elementary school librarian.

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TED Ed: How Do Tornadoes Form?

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