So, what are those clouds that look like tornadoes?

Madison Heights, (Photo: Angela Shields)

ABC 13 was flooded with phone calls and pictures of something that looked like a tornado this morning.

You might have seen it.

The official definition: no tornado.

The unofficial description: "it's an S.L.C." (scary-looking cloud!)

Here are the facts:

  • No, this is not a funnel cloud or tornado, it's actually not even close.
  • Despite its menacing appearance, this cloud is in no way associated with a tornado. There is no organized rotation or tornadic wind. This "SLC" is simply cold air in the upper elevations (higher than 20,000 feet) of the rain cloud which is descending toward the ground. Sometimes an SLC can have a somewhat of a corkscrew appearance. It's disorganized, outflow wind down from the storm. This contrasts to a tornado which is a violent column of air rising and violently spinning upward into a storm. The air in a tornado can be rotating more than 200 mph! (The Appomattox county tornado was in the 135 mph range.)
  • This SLC cloud formation you see here is due to the huge complex of storms from Wednesday night and Thursday morning which moved from Chicago to Virginia.
  • The rain and large expanse of clouds created a huge mass of cool air at cloud level. In this case that cold air gently descended (you might remember from science class that cold air is heavier than warm air.)
  • As the cold air is dropping into warmer, humid air, you might see weird cloud formations near the ground.
  • The wispy appearance is from the cool air gradually sinking and condensing into a cloud. The cooler air is flowing out of the storm. By contrast, tornadic storms have "rock hard" features and warm air violently expands upward.
  • A tip which storm spotters and chasers are taught: if storm is "inhaling," and sucking in air, then it could produce a tornado. Wind near a tornado rushes rapidly TOWARD a storm. When cool air is blowing AWAY from a storm it will not produce a tornado.

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