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Lecture 5 Notes

Outline of this lecture

Part One Thunderstorm Primer

Dynamics of Thunderstorms
World Distribution of Thunderstorms
Part Two Tornado Primer
Famous Canadian Tornadoes
Part Three Research
Etkin et al. (2001) Tornado Climatology in Canada
Cao and Cai (2011) Dectection of Tornado Frequency Trend
Over Ontario, Canada

Part I. Thunderstorm Primer

1.1 Definitions

What is a thunderstorm?

A thunderstorm is a convective storm. This means that the storm is caused primarily
by surface heating (rather the upper level flow). These occurred in the summer season
(locally). This is the main feature in weather variability in Southern Ontario in the
summer months. It is the only type of storm that has thunder and lightning. Large
thunderstorms can spawn tornadoes. Toronto gets between 30 and 40 thunderstorm days
per year.

1.2 Dynamics of Thunderstorms

A storm that produces thunder and lightning is called a thunderstorm. There are four
types of thunderstorms: ordinary (single cell) thunderstorms, multicell thunderstorms,
super cell thunderstorms and mesoscale convective complexes.
Ordinary thunderstorms develop in large air masses, not necessarily near a frontal
system with little vertical wind shear. Vertical wind is the change in the speed and
direction of the horizontal wind. A necessary condition is that the air mass is vertical
unstable. Vertical instability arises when less underlies denser air. Typically this occurs
when warm air underlies colder air. Differentially surface heating is often the trigger for
ordinary thunderstorms although other triggers are possible, such as topography and
surface wind convergence. All of the triggers forces air upward into a strong updraft. If
the rising air remains warmer than its immediate surroundings it continues to rise. Rising
air also cools due to expansion. Water vapor in the air will condense once saturation is
reached. The condensation process releases latent heat, providing an additional energy
source, which warms the air and adds to the instability. Often thunderstorms span the
entire troposphere (8 13 km in height) and sometimes penetrate into the stable
stratosphere. The condensation of the water vapor creates the cumulonimbus clouds,
which are a vast collection of hydrometeors, ice crystals and water droplets. When these
hydrometeors become large enough they begin to descend. This marks the end of an
ordinary thunderstorm. As the droplets fall, some are evaporated. This uses energy, the
air becomes colder and begins to sink, and a downdraft starts to form. Since there is little
vertical wind shear the downdraft forms in the same area as the updraft, thus
counteracting the updraft. As the downdraft gains strength, the updraft dissipates. With
this dissipation the fuel for the storm, latent heat release, is also cut off.
The downdraft provides the surface with a blast of cool air. This cool air upon
encountering the surface spreads horizontally. This is called the gust front. Gust fronts
are able to cause surrounding warm air to rise and thus are capable of inducing further
thunderstorms. Because of the self-limiting process the downdraft dissipating the
updraft ordinary thunderstorms are short lived, rarely lasting an hour and typically
having a diameter of less than one kilometre.
Multicell thunderstorms are very similar to ordinary thunderstorms except there is
a moderate vertical wind shear. This shear causes the storm to tilt and the downdraft is
formed downwind of the updraft; thus the storm can last longer. The gust front of the
downdraft is more likely to induce another thunderstorm and a string of thunderstorms
occurs, often at different stages of development. These storms tend to occur near a frontal
system of a midlatitude cyclone.
Supercell thunderstorms occur with strong vertical wind shear. These storms form
in front of a cold front of a midlatitude cyclone in the cyclones warm sector. The strong
wind shear results from warm, tropical air from the south to southwest pushing into the
region above the warm sector. Above this is colder, drier air moving in from the west.
Above this air is the jet stream, often providing divergence aloft from a variety of
mechanisms. A small layer of stable air exists above the surface air, acting like a cap or
lid on the emerging updraft. Under some conditions the rising air can break through this
cap. Once this is done, the storm grows quickly if not explosively.
The strong wind shear insures that the downdraft that develops is downstream of the
updraft, thus allowing supercell thunderstorms to last longer than ordinary thunderstorms
often for more than several hours. Supercells often produce large hail with diameters of
as much as 10 cm. The strong wind shear also enables the formation of tornadoes.
Thunderstorms that occur ahead of a cold front often form in a line called a squall
line. Occasionally multiple thunderstorms organize in a circular fashion covering over
100,000 square kilometers. These are called mesoscale convective complexes (MCCs).
These complexes are self-sustaining and can last over 12 hours and produce heavy
precipitation, which has resulted in flooding. Unlike supercells, MCCs can form with
only weak vertical wind shear.
1.3 Lightning

A special characteristic of thunderstorms is the production of thunder and lightning.

Thunderstorms arise from surface heating and latent heat release, which destabilizes the
atmosphere. These are called convective storms, as convection is the primary driving
force. Thunderstorms are so named because of the thunder and lightning generated which
are not characteristic of other storms.
Although the process is not clear, in a thunderstorm hydrometeors become
charged. Smaller ice crystals become positively charges and tend to migrate to the top of
the thundercloud. Larger, heavier hydrometeors tend to exist in the lower part of the
cloud and are negatively charged. The negative charged cloud base, acting like a magnet,
attracts positive surface charge, which focuses on the highest surface object (such as a
building or tree).
Lightning can take place from the cloud base to either the surface or the reverse.
However, 90% of lightning is the first type. Only in relatively infrequent cases when the
base of the cloud is positively charged does lightning take place from the surface to the
cloud base. However, the appearance is usually the opposite due to the two-step process
of lightning formation.
In the first step for the first type of lightning, when the electrical potential exceeds
3 million volts, a path of 50 m or so is ionized beginning at the cloud base. Electrical
discharge rushes from the cloud base to the surface in 50 to 100 m steps. Each step takes
about 50 millionths of a second. This is called a step leader and is very faint; usually not
visible to the naked eye. As the step leader approaches the surface, surface positive
charge flows upward on the locally highest object. Once the connection is made the
luminous return stroke, several centimeters in diameter, occurs. The process can be
repeated (lightning can strike twice). Subsequent step leaders are called dart leaders and
usually follow the original path. Sometimes, however, the dart leader may at some point
deviate to a different path; this produces forked lightning.
The lightning stroke heats the air to over 30,000C. The air expands explosively
and sends out a shock wave which is heard as thunder. Since sound travels more slowly
than light, thunder is heard after the lightning stroke is seen. Radio waves are also
produced. These waves, called sferics, propagate further with less dispersion. This
provides the basis for a lightning detection system.
The lightning described so far has been lightning, which electrically connects a
cloud to the Earths surface. However lightning can also occur within a cloud and
between clouds. This is called sheet lightning. The lightning is usually viewed through a
cloud and thus appears as a luminous sheet. Heat lightning is a term used to describe
lightning that occurs at a distance. Due to the curvature of the Earth and refraction in the
atmosphere, the thunder from this lightning is not heard, but a flash (often orange) briefly
lights the sky. It has the name heat lightning because it is often seen on hot, clear
summer evenings. Dry lightning occurs when a thunderstorms precipitation is
evaporated in the downdraft and does not reach the surface.
1.4 Hail

Hail is formed under special conditions in thunderstorms. Hail begins as an ice pellet
and grows through successive cycling through the updraft and downdraft of supercell
thunderstorms. These storms have a high vertical extent, often 10 km or more. High in
the cloud where temperatures are very cold, supercooled water droplets are present.
These freeze upon contact with ice pellets. Supercooled water deposits onto the
hailstones outer surface during each updraft cycle, gradually increasing the size of the
hail. When supercooled water droplets are in abundance, a layer of liquid forms on the
hailstone and slowly freezes, forming a clear glaze. If the supercooled droplets are not in
abundance, small air bubbles are mixed into the freezing layer forming an opaque layer
called rime. Often hailstones have alternate layers of glaze and rime. For particularly
strong storms hailstones of 10 cm diameter (grapefruit size) can be produced before the
weight of the hail causes it to fall to the surface. Hail can cause extensive damage to roofs
and automobiles. The greatest damage is to crops and livestock. In the US, on average,
hail causes over 1 billion dollars of damage per year.
The largest recorded hailstone fell at Coffeyville, Kansas measuring 14 cm and
weighing 767 grams. In Canada the largest recorded hailstone fell at Cedoux,
Saskatchewan. It measured 10 cm in diameter and weighed 290 grams.
In North America hail is observed most frequently on the lee side of the Rocky

1.5 World Distribution of Thunderstorms

Dai (2000) did an analysis of thunderstorms throughout the world. He found that
thunderstorms tended to form over land in the warm hemisphere on an annual basis. In all
seasons thunderstorms formed over the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and in
the warm hemisphere midlatitude continental areas. Over the oceans, thunderstorm
activity was recorded in tropical latitudes.

Part II. Tornado Primer

2.1 Definitions

What is a tornado?

A tornado is a rotating column of air that reaches the ground. They are also
commonly referred to as twisters or cyclones. A funnel cloud is a precursor to
tornado before it has reached the surface. Most tornadoes spin counterclockwise. They
tend to range from 100 600 m diameter. Most only last a few minutes. Peak winds of
220 knots (400 km/h) are often recorded with tornadoes.

How do tornadoes form?

Tornadoes form in supercell thunderstorms along the cold front of a midlatitude

cyclone. The cold front provides vertical wind shear (winds of differing speed and
direction with height). This causes air to form a horizontal vortex tube. This tube is then
deformed by the strong updraft associated with a supercell thunderstorm. This provides a
vertical component to the vortex tube. As this tube nears the surface a funnel cloud is
observed. As it hits the surface it becomes a tornado.

How are thunderstorms and tornadoes related?

Tornadoes are spawned from supercell (large) thunderstorms. Tornadoes are formed
from the thunderstorm base. A thunderstorm is a necessary condition for a tornado but
not vice versa.

2.2 Devastation

The Fujita Scale quantifies tornadoes and provides a scale of tornado strength.

Fujita Scale
F0 - Weak: 64 116 km/h
F1 Weak: 117 180 km/h
F2 Strong: 181 252 km/h
F3 Strong: 253 330 km/h
F4 Violent: 331 416 km/h
F5 Violent: 417 515 km/h
F6 Violent: > 515 km/h

Limitations of Fujita scale:

The original Fujita scale has several weaknesses:
The estimated wind speed from the damage may not be accurate since different
infrastructures will sustain different wind strength, therefore, the damages are
dependent on specific infrastructure which can be misleading
Rankings are subjective and based solely on the damage caused by a tornado
Difficult to apply with no damage indicators (if a tornado hits no structures, large
trees, etc.)
No account of construction quality and variability
No definitive correlation between damage and wind speed
Subject to biases of the surveyors

Tornado Damage

The Emergency Preparedness Canada natural disaster database indicates that

tornadoes are 6th on the list. There have been 29 damaging tornadoes from 1900 to 1999
including 125 fatalities, 1777 injured, and 7718 evacuated, totaling 1.2 billion dollars of
In the US the highest tornado frequency is on the leeside of the Rocky Mountains. In
Canada there are two areas of peak activity, southern Alberta and southwestern Ontario.
Enhanced Fujita scale

The EF-scale was proposed by the National Weather Services (NWS) to the
public and the full meteorological community early in 2006.
On 1 February 2007, the Enhanced Fujita scale replaced the original Fujita scale
in all tornado damage surveys in the United States

Comparison between Fujita scale and enhanced Fujita scale:

Please look at the following link for detail about the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

2.3 Famous Canadian Tornadoes

Deadliest tornadoes in Canadian history

Death counts before 1900 may be approximate
Rank Tornado Date Deaths
1 "Regina Cyclone" June 30, 1912 28
2 Edmonton Tornado July 31, 1987 27
3 Windsor-Tecumseh, Ontario tornado June 17, 1946 17
4 Pine Lake Tornado July 14, 2000 12
5 Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec August 16, 1888 9
Windsor, Ontario tornado April 3, 1974 9
7 Barrie, Ontario tornado May 31, 1985 8
8 Sudbury, Ontario tornado August 20, 1970 6
Sainte-Rose, Quebec tornado June 8, 1953 6
10 Bouctouche, New Brunswick August 6, 1879 5
Portage la Prairie, Manitoba tornado May 11, 1953 5
2.3.1 Edmonton Tornado

On July 31th, 1987, an F4 tornado hit Edmonton, Alberta causing an estimated

$350 million dollars in damage. There were 27 fatalities mainly occurring in a poorly
prepared and protected trailer park.
See for imagery.

2.3.2 Barrie Tornado

Barrie is located north of Toronto on the shores of Lake Simcoe. An F4 tornado

hit the city on May 31, 1985. During that time period there were 41 tornadoes
observed in the Canada/US Great Lakes region. There were at least 13 distinct
tornadoes in Southern Ontario. Twelve fatalities occurred with eight of them in
Barrie. There was >$100 million in damage in Canada and >$450 million in damage
in US. Etkin et al. (2002) examined this tornado and estimated the damage if the
storm had occurred in other locations in Barrie. The paper is listed below in the
For imagery see:

Part III. Research

3.1 Etkin et al. (2001) Tornado Climatology in canada

Dave Etkin (formerly of Environment Canada and now of York University)
Eric Brun (graduate student at UTSC) and others
Update on the older analysis of tornado frequencies
Research done during late1990s for the post 1980 time period up to 1999
To look at the changes in tornado occurrences in Prairie provinces and Ontario in
Canada and at the effects of ENSO on tornadoes

Review of Tornado climatology, followed by an analysis of the impacts of ENSO
events on tornado frequencies

It is recommended that you at least read the introduction and conclusion of the paper.
Areas of tornadic activity in Ontario:

The tornadic activity in Ontario is affected by the location of the Great Lakes. Due to the
mitigating effect from the great lakes (milder summer and winter), the northeast of the
Great Lakes is an infrequent zone of storm and tornadic activity. However, in the
southwest of Ontario, beginning at Windsor, lies the area of highest tornadic activity in
Canada. This is essentially an extension of the broad ridge of tornado incidence
originating in Oklahoma and stretching through the narrow neck of land between Sarnia
and Windsor and beyond. The storms in southwest Ontario tend to be low based and
produce heavy precipitation and tend to be embedded, this likely being due to the local
moisture sources of the Great Lakes. Many Ontario tornadoes are not readily observed
because they are obscured by the precipitation. The classic supercell storm with a single
isolated cell is infrequent though not a rarity. Recent studies of storms in Ontario show
that Lake Breeze boundary generated convection may be the prevalent mechanism for
storm formation and lead to a preferred southwest-to-northeast axis of tornadic activity
(Sills, 1998). This activity stretches into the province of Quebec (Etkin et al, 2001).

Summary and Conclusions

The post-1980 tornado data show that they are reported most frequently in parts
of the southern Prairies and southwestern Ontario
Various climatological patterns show that a maximum of occurrence is in the
No F5 events have ever been recorded, but a number of F4 events have been
The cool temperatures that usually accompany La Nin as seem to suppress
summer tornadic activity in Canada, but not in USA, as in Tennessee and the
Ohio Valleys, where tornadoes are more prevalent during spring
The absence of strong wind shear during La Nina years in Canada (not shown)
thus inhibits tornado development
In general, there is a tendency towards more tornadoes during El Nino years and
fewer during La Nina years, with a few exceptions
3.2 Cao and Cai (2011)
It is recommended that you read the research paper that is posted on the
blackboard and learn it in the form of 5 Ws, how and conclusion. Please look at
the lecture slides to get an idea in terms of how much you should cover for this
research articles. In general, reading the introduction, results and conclusion
sections will give you a pretty good idea about the research.

Next week

Polar lows, sandstorms and firestorms


Ahrens, C.D., 2003. Meteorology Today, An Introduction to weather, climate and the
environment, 7th Edition. Thomson/Brooks/Cole. 544 pp.

Dai, A. (2000). Global precipitation and thunderstorm frequencies. Part 1. Seasonal and
interannual variations. Journal of Climate, 14: 1092-1111.

Etkin, D. and S.E. Brun (1999). A note on Canadas hail climatology, 1977-1993.
International Journal of Climatology, 19: 1357-1373.

Lutgens, F.K., Tarbuck, E.J., 1998. The Atmosphere, 7th Edition. Prentice-Hall, 434 pp.