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Cold air and cold-core funnels

Even when or if cold-air funnels touch down, they rarely cause much damage

Hydro crews pull down damaged lines on June 22 after a tornado the previous day at Mascouche, Que., about 25 km north of Montreal.

For this article, I debated whether I should discuss the short cold snap that brought some record-cold weather to southern and central regions the morning of June 22, along with the heatwave impacting far Western Canada, or continue our look at severe thunderstorms, and specifically, the deadliest part: tornadoes.

I figure I can cover the cold snap and heatwave in the next issue, so while we have not had much in the way of severe weather this year, let us dig into this still poorly understood topic.

What are tornadoes, and how do they form? We have looked at this topic several times over the years, but I think it is important to re-examine it. A classic definition of a tornado is a violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground, which may or may not be visible as a funnel cloud. For this rotating column of air to be classified as a tornado, it must touch the ground.

As to how tornadoes form, the real answer is, we just do not know. Tornadoes usually develop from supercell thunderstorms, which are difficult to predict. Even if we were able to accurately predict where and when these thunderstorms would develop, the intense part of the thunderstorm usually only covers an area of a few hundred square kilometres. Within these few hundred square kilometres, the really severe weather may only occur in a small area of maybe 10 to 20 square km. Now, if we look at the size of tornadoes, we will find that they range from as small as about 40 metres to as large as two km across, with the average width being around 100-200 metres. This means that, as far as weather phenomena are concerned, tornadoes are very small, which makes them very hard to study first-hand.

To begin our look at tornadoes, let us first take a look at one of the weakest members of the tornado family and something we do see around Manitoba: the cold air funnel.

Manitoba only sees around 15 tornadoes on average each year, making them fairly rare; however, cold-air funnel clouds, also referred to as cold-core funnels, are a little more common. Personally, I have never seen a tornado, but I have seen a cold-air funnel. All tornadoes develop out of what we refer to as a funnel cloud. In strong thunderstorms, these funnels elongate and may eventually touch the ground to become tornadoes, but a funnel cloud all by itself is not considered a tornado. While a fair bit of research has been done on tornadoes and the storms that produce them, very little research has been done on cold-air funnels; therefore, we know very little about them.

In general, cold-air funnels form in environments where we would not typically expect severe weather to develop (hot, muggy, unstable air); rather, they usually form when there is a large pool of cold air aloft that is most often associated with an upper-level low. These conditions provide two critical ingredients that are believed to be necessary for the development of cold-air funnels: instability and vorticity.

If you think back to when we talked about instability in the atmosphere, you’ll remember that warm air will rise and cold air will sink. If the atmosphere is unstable, you need either really warm air at the surface, or very cold air in the upper atmosphere. This is why there needs to be a pool of cold air aloft for cold air funnels to form, because this provides the first ingredient: instability, or rising air.

Spin machine

The second ingredient is vorticity. This simply means spinning air. Areas of low pressure are large areas of spinning air, too large to form into a funnel cloud or tornado. But within this large area of spinning air, smaller regions get “spun up,” creating what meteorologists call a vorticity-rich environment, containing a lot of little eddies of spinning air. Now, what scientists believe happens is that one of these small eddies of spinning air gets caught in an updraft. This updraft then pulls on and elongates the eddy, causing it to contract in width, and, just like figure skaters pulling their arms in during a spin, this causes the rotation to speed up, creating a funnel cloud.

These funnel clouds are generally very weak and short-lived and will rarely become strong enough, or last long enough, to touch down. If they do touch down, they can then be referred to as tornadoes, but even then, they rarely cause much damage, often comparable to that of a very strong dust devil. In fact, when these cold air funnels do touch down, they are sometimes referred to as ‘land spouts.’

Since the potential exists for cold air funnels to touch down as tornadoes, Environment Canada has to issue special weather statements to warn the public about them. Since they rarely touch down, and even when they do, they rarely cause damage, such statements will usually urge the public to be watchful for these to occur and to take precautions, if necessary, i.e., you do not have to go diving for the nearest storm shelter if you see one of them forming.

In the next issue, we will take a break from tornadoes as another month has come and gone, so we will do our usual look back at June’s weather across the Prairies and then look ahead to see what the next three months might have in store.

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.

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