Can tornadoes form in hurricanes?
Hurricanes and tornadoes are among the first things that come to mind when we think of devastating weather events.
But, have you ever considered what may occur if these two meteorological giants were to collide?
You will have to dive into the intricate atmospheric dynamics that give rise to tornadoes and hurricanes to learn when and why they may occur simultaneously.
The formation of tornadoes inside hurricanes may sound like something out of apocalyptic fiction, but it is possible and has been confirmed by scientists.
More about Tornadoes and Hurricanes
To answer this question, you will first have to learn to separate tornadoes from hurricanes.
Although both produce high winds, tornados and hurricanes are two distinct kinds of weather phenomena.
A tornado is a narrow column of air that rotates violently as it reaches down to the ground from the thunderstorm overhead.
Tornadoes occur in many parts of the world, at any time, although there are seasonal peaks. Tornadoes are measured by the amount of damage they cause.
On the other hand, a hurricane is a tropical storm with wind speeds of over miles per hour.
Hurricanes form in the Atlantic and have a calm center, violent eye wall and bands of rain that spin-off from the center.
Can Tornadoes Form in Hurricanes?
Hurricanes and tornadoes are caused by instability in the atmosphere and both have the potential to be destructive.
Hurricanes take longer to form and so warnings can be issued days ahead of the storm.
Tornados are more difficult to predict and experts can only give a few minutes warning. But can they occur together?
Fact: A tornado's wind speed can exceed 483 kilometers per hour, but even the strongest hurricanes seldom generate wind speeds over 322 kilometers per hour.
Tornadoes in Hurricanes: Rare but Possible!
Tornadoes in hurricanes is a localized phenomenon formed in individual storm clouds.
It usually happens as the movement of circulating air is disrupted by colliding with land or when the air meets a front with different pressure and temperature.
Although each tornado is relatively short-lived, it is not unusual for formation to last several days as each rain band of the hurricane sweeps over the land.
Due to the rotation of the hurricane, counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, and winds created as air is pulled into the center, most tornadoes form in the hurricane’s right front quadrant.
Not all storms and hurricanes form tornadoes, so they are quite rare.
More about Hurricanes and Tornado Formation
New tornados form within the rain bands of a hurricane at locations with vertical wind shear.
Because of the storm’s interaction with the front, its winds change direction and speed.
Since there can be multiple fronts, each hurricane can produce multiple tornados.
Hurricanes need warm moisture-rich air to survive so once a storm crosses from water to land, it is cut off from its energy supply.
It begins to dwindle, but this takes time.
The lower winds are subjected to friction against the land and slow down whilst the upper winds maintain their momentum forcing the formation of rotating columns of air.
Fact: Most tornadoes have a width of less than 0.8 km , with the greatest ever recorded being 4 kilometers wide, and they are born in storm clouds that are about 16 km broad.
Tornado Formation in Hurricanes
Tornadoes happen all around the world, with over 100 a year in the US alone.
They increase in frequency in seasonal peaks as storms form and the northern hemisphere’s waters warm.
Florida, surrounded by warm water, experienced around 60 tornadoes a year between 1989 and 2019.
Although tornados are unpredictable, meteorologists know they form in various stages:
- A storm develops as pockets of hot moist air rise, creating updraughts and downdraughts.
- Thunderstorms form when the pockets cool rapidly at very high altitudes to produce cumulonimbus clouds.
- Where vertical wind shear is present, the updraughts get turned and begin a horizontal spin.
- A deep persistent rotation forms a supercell thunderstorm.
- A tornado is formed as the rotation is brought down to the ground with the downdraught.
- The cold downdraught eventually wraps around the warm spinning air to cool it causing the tornado to dissipate.
Tornadoes and Hurricane Damage
Without water to fuel it, hurricane stalls and wind speeds eventually fall.
However, new tornados can continue to form wherever the shifting windshear is greatest.
They add to the level of damage these high winds cause.
A hurricane can be tens of miles in diameter, and last hours or days even weeks, producing storm surges and flooding as well as its characteristic damaging high winds.
Tornados, just a few hundred yards across, last minutes and cause only wind damage.
A hurricane causes more overall damage than a tornado because of its greater size even though tornados often create faster winds.
Fact: Tornadoes are most reliably predicted by the presence of rotating thunderstorms, and hail, high winds, lightning, and flash floods are all possible.
Factors that Contribute to the Formation of Tornadoes in Hurricanes
Although weather experts cannot predict when or where a tornado will form, the predictable nature of hurricanes gives them a way to predict the likelihood of hurricanes accompanying tornados.
They know that for a storm to have tornado potential the atmosphere must be unstable with varying wind speeds and changes in the current’s direction.
This usually includes changes in its height to form wind shear and have warm moist air near ground level and cool dry air above.
All thunderstorms have the potential to form tornadoes but they occur more frequently in supercell storms.
Being more severe and long-lived, these storms are often tornadic.
Tornadoes in Hurricanes Case Studies
Tornado-producing hurricanes used to be considered rare weather events.
But, with climate change and sea temperatures rising, we are experiencing more of the powerful hurricanes associated with them.
Unlike hurricanes, tornados are difficult to model but scientists are confidently predicting a corresponding rise in their frequency and power.
To get a better idea about how devastating tornadoes in hurricanes can be, here are a few examples to consider:
Hurricane Ivan, a category 3 hurricane, came to life on August 31, 2004, as a tropical wave moving off the west coast of Africa.
Ivan made landfall west of the US Gulf Shores in the early hours of September 16th.
In Baldwin County, Alabama, Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties in Florida, Ivan’s 120 mph winds created huge storm surges.
Unusually, before it died, Storm Ivan moved inland down to Grenada and Cuba resulting in loss of life.
From Florida to Pennsylvania, Ivan spawned a record-breaking 118 tornadoes, more than any previous tropical system since 1950.
Hurricane Rita began life as a tropical depression in the Bahamas on September 17, 2005.
Weather watchers were concerned because Rita’s path looked set to pass through the Florida Keys or New Orleans which were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
As it gained strength it was tracked across the Gulf of Mexico and eventually made landfall in south Texas.
Rita had a recorded sustained wind speed of 175 mph and was the 17th hurricane of the season.
There were 98 verified tornadoes in the wake of Hurricane Rita, which lasted for over two days.
Mississippi saw the most number of twisters, with a count as high as 49.
Fact: Tornadoes typically move from southwest to northeast, though they can briefly reverse course if they encounter winds coming from the center of a thunderstorm.
Irma became a category 5 hurricane on August 31st 2017 whilst still out in the Atlantic west of the Cab Verde Islands.
By September 6th when it hit the Leeward Islands Irma had winds of 185 mph.
The superstorm moved slowly with fluctuating intensity causing catastrophic damage across the Caribbean and bombarding the Florida Keys with tornados.
Can tornadoes form in hurricanes? It may not sound possible, but the reality is different.
Though tornadoes forming in hurricanes is a rare occurrence, it is not impossible.
The intricate relationship between tornadoes and hurricanes is a powerful example of nature’s majesty and unpredictability.
To enhance forecasting and better prepare populations for these combined weather risks, a better understanding of the formation of tornadoes in hurricanes is essential.
Focusing on these weather occurrences can help us learn a lot about the Earth’s atmosphere, which has its own benefits.