skip to main content

Title: A New Pathway for Tornadogenesis Exposed by Numerical Simulations of Supercells in Turbulent Environments

A simulation of a supercell storm produced for a prior study on tornado predictability is reanalyzed for the purpose of examining the fine-scale details of tornadogenesis. It is found that the formation of a tornado-like vortex in the simulation differs from how such vortices have been understood to form in previous numerical simulations. The main difference between the present simulation and past ones is the inclusion of a turbulent boundary layer in the storm’s environment in the present case, whereas prior simulations have used a laminar boundary layer. The turbulent environment contains significant near-surface vertical vorticity (ζ> 0.03 s−1atz= 7.5 m), organized in the form of longitudinal streaks aligned with the southerly ground-relative winds. Theζstreaks are associated with corrugations in the vertical plane in the predominantly horizontal, westward-pointing environmental vortex lines; the vortex-line corrugations are produced by the vertical drafts associated with coherent turbulent structures aligned with the aforementioned southerly ground-relative winds (longitudinal coherent structures in the surface layer such as these are well known to the boundary layer and turbulence communities). Theζstreaks serve as focal points for tornadogenesis, and may actually facilitate tornadogenesis, given how near-surfaceζin the environment can rapidly amplify when subjected to the strong, persistent convergence beneath a supercell updraft.

Significance Statement

In high-resolution computer simulations of supercell storms that include a more realistic, turbulent environment, the means by which tornado-like vortices form differs from the mechanism identified in prior simulations using a less realistic, laminar environment. One possibility is that prior simulations develop intense vortices for the wrong reasons. Another possibility could be that tornadoes form in a wide range of ways in the real atmosphere, even within supercell storms that appear to be similar, and increasingly realistic computer simulations are finally now capturing that diversity.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Publisher / Repository:
American Meteorological Society
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Medium: X Size: p. 481-518
["p. 481-518"]
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract It has long been observed that interactions of a supercell with other storms or storm-scale boundaries sometimes seem to directly instigate tornadogenesis. First, the authors explore the frequency of such constructive interactions. WSR-88D radar data are used to categorize 136 tornadic supercells into isolated supercells and supercells that interacted with external factors within 20 min before tornadogenesis. Most cases (80%) showed some form of external influence prior to tornadogenesis. Common patterns of interactions, the typical supercell quadrant that is affected, and changes in azimuthal shear are also identified. To further study these interactions, two sets of idealized CM1 simulations are performed. The first set demonstrates that the speed of the near-ground horizontal flow relative to the updraft can control whether a vortex patch develops into a tornado. A weaker updraft-relative flow is favorable because the developing vortex stays in the updraft region longer and becomes less tilted. Building on these results, it is shown that external outflow can lead to tornado formation by a deceleration of the updraft-relative flow. The deceleration is caused by the pressure gradient force associated with the external outflow, which is already noticeable several kilometers ahead of the outflow boundary. This offers another possible mechanism by which external outflow can act as a catalyst for supercell tornadogenesis. 
    more » « less
  2. Abstract A 25-member ensemble of relatively high-resolution (75-m horizontal grid spacing) numerical simulations of tornadic supercell storms is used to obtain insight on their intrinsic predictability. The storm environments contain large and directionally varying wind shear, particularly in the boundary layer, large convective available potential energy, and a low lifting condensation level. Thus, the environments are extremely favorable for tornadic supercells. Small random temperature perturbations present in the initial conditions trigger turbulence within the boundary layers. The turbulent boundary layers are given 12 h to evolve to a quasi–steady state before storms are initiated via the introduction of a warm bubble. The spatially averaged environments are identical within the ensemble; only the random number seed and/or warm bubble location is varied. All of the simulated storms are long-lived supercells with intense updrafts and strong mesocyclones extending to the lowest model level. Even the storms with the weakest near-surface rotation probably can be regarded as weakly tornadic. However, despite the statistically identical environments, there is considerable divergence in the finescale details of the simulated storms. The intensities of the tornado-like vortices that develop in the simulations range from EF0 to EF3, with large differences in formation time and duration also being exhibited. The simulation differences only can be explained by differences in how the initial warm bubbles and/or storms interact with turbulent boundary layer structures. The results suggest very limited intrinsic predictability with respect to predicting the formation time, duration, and intensity of tornadoes. 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    This study analyzes aboveground thermodynamic observations in three tornadic supercells obtained via swarms of small balloon-borne sondes acting aspseudo-Lagrangiandrifters; the storm-relative winds draw the sondes through the precipitation, outflow, and baroclinic zones, which are believed to play key roles in tornado formation. Three-dimensional thermodynamic analyses are produced from the in situ observations. The coldest air is found at the lowest analysis levels, where virtual potential temperature deficits of 2–5 K are observed. Air parcels within the forward-flank outflow are inferred from their equivalent potential temperatures to have descended only a few hundred meters or less, whereas parcels within the rear-flank outflow are inferred to have downward excursions of 1–2 km. Additionally, the parcels following paths toward the low-level mesocyclone pass through horizontal buoyancy gradients that are strongest in the lowest 750 m and estimated to be capable of baroclinically generating horizontal vorticity having a magnitude of 6–10 × 10−3s−1. A substantial component of the baroclinically generated vorticity is initially crosswise, though the vorticity subsequently could become streamwise given the leftward bending of the airstream in which the vorticity is generated. The baroclinically generated vorticity could contribute to tornado formation upon being tilted upward and stretched near the surface beneath a strong, dynamically forced updraft.

    Significance Statement

    Swarms of balloon-borne probes are used to produce the first-ever, three-dimensional mappings of temperature from in situ observations within supercell storms (rotating storms with high tornado potential). Temperature has a strong influence on the buoyancy of air, and horizontal variations of buoyancy generate spin about a horizontal axis. Buoyancy is one of the primary drivers of upward and downward motions in thunderstorms, and in supercell storms, horizontally oriented spin can be tipped into the vertical and amplified by certain arrangements of upward and downward motions. Unfortunately, the long-standing lack of temperature observations has hampered scientists’ ability to evaluate computer simulations and the tornadogenesis theories derived from them. We find that significant spin could be generated by the horizontal buoyancy variations sampled by the probes.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    A multiscale analysis of the environment supporting tornadoes in southeast South America (SESA) was conducted based on a self-constructed database of 74 reports. Composites of environmental and convective parameters from ERA5 were generated relative to tornado events. The distribution of the reported tornadoes maximizes over the Argentine plains, while events are rare close to the Andes and south of Sierras de Córdoba. Events are relatively common in all seasons except in winter. Proximity environment evolution shows enhanced instability, deep-layer vertical wind shear, storm-relative helicity, reduced convective inhibition, and a lowered lifting condensation level before or during the development of tornadic storms in SESA. No consistent signal in low-level wind shear is seen during tornado occurrence. However, a curved hodograph with counterclockwise rotation is present. The Significant Tornado Parameter (STP) is also maximized prior to tornadogenesis, most strongly associated with enhanced CAPE. Differences in the convective environment between tornadoes in SESA and the U.S. Great Plains are discussed. On the synoptic scale, tornado events are associated with a strong anomalous trough crossing the southern Andes that triggers lee cyclogenesis, subsequently enhancing the South American low-level jet (SALLJ) that increases moisture advection to support deep convection. This synoptic trough also enhances vertical shear that, along with enhanced instability, sustains organized convection capable of producing tornadic storms. At planetary scales, the tornadic environment is modulated by Rossby wave trains that appear to be forced by convection near northern Australia. Madden–Julian oscillation phase 3 preferentially occurs 1–2 weeks ahead of tornado occurrence.

    Significance Statement

    The main goal of this study is to describe what atmospheric conditions (from local to global scales) are present prior to and during tornadic storms impacting southeast South America (SESA). Increasing potential for deep convection, wind shear, and potential for rotating updrafts, as well as reducing convective inhibition and cloud-base height, are predominant a few hours before and during the events in connection to low-level northerly winds enhancing moisture transport to the region. Remote convective activity near northern Australia appears to influence large-scale atmospheric circulation that subsequently triggers convective storms supporting tornadogenesis 1–2 weeks later in SESA. Our findings highlight the importance of accounting for atmospheric processes occurring at different scales to understand and predict tornado occurrences.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Surface boundaries in supercells have been suspected of being important in the arrangement and concentration of vorticity for the development and intensification of tornadoes, but there has been little attention given to the effects of the underlying surface roughness on their behavior. This study investigates the impact of surface drag on the structure and evolution of these boundaries, their associated distribution of near-surface vorticity, and tornadogenesis and maintenance. Comparisons between idealized simulations without and with drag introduced in the mature stage of the storm prior to tornadogenesis reveal that the inclusion of surface drag substantially alters the low-level structure, particularly with respect to the number, location, and intensity of surface convergence boundaries. Substantial drag-generated horizontal vorticity induces rotor structures near the surface associated with the convergence boundaries in both the forward and rear flanks of the storm. Stretching of horizontal vorticity and subsequent tilting into the vertical along the convergence boundaries lead to elongated positive vertical vorticity sheets on the ascending branch of the rotors and the opposite on the descending branch. The larger near-surface pressure deficit associated with the faster development of the near-surface cyclone when drag is active creates a downward dynamic vertical pressure gradient force that suppresses vertical growth, leading to a weaker and wider tornado detached from the surrounding convergence boundaries. A conceptual model of the low-level structure of the tornadic supercell is presented that focuses on the contribution of surface drag, with the aim of adding more insight and complexity to previous conceptual models.

    Significance Statement

    Tornado development is sensitive to near-surface processes, including those associated with front-like boundaries between regions of airflow within the parent storm. However, observations and theory are insufficient to understand these phenomena, and numerical simulation remains vital. In our simulations, we find that a change in a parameter that controls how much the near-surface winds are reduced by friction (or drag) can substantially alter the storm behavior and tornado potential. We investigate how surface drag affects the low-level storm structure, the distribution of regions of near-surface rotation, and the development of tornadoes within the simulation. Our results provide insight into the role of surface drag and lead to an improved conceptual model of the near-surface structure of a tornadic storm.

    more » « less