Severe Weather Glossary
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All definitions are courtesy of the National Weather Service:
Accessory Cloud - A cloud which is dependent on a larger cloud system for development and continuance. Roll clouds, shelf clouds, and wall clouds are examples of accessory clouds.
Air Mass Thunderstorm - Generally, a thunderstorm not associated with a front or other type of synoptic-scale forcing mechanism. Air mass thunderstorms typically are associated with warm, humid air in the summer months; they develop during the afternoon in response to insolation, and dissipate rather quickly after sunset. They generally are less likely to be severe than other types of thunderstorms, but they still are capable of producing downbursts, brief heavy rain, and (in extreme cases) hail over 3/4 inch in diameter.
Anvil - The flat, spreading top of a cumulonimbus cloud, often shaped like an anvil. Thunderstorm anvils may spread hundreds of miles downwind from the thunderstorm itself, and sometimes may spread upwind.
Anvil Crawler - [Slang], a lightning discharge occurring within the anvil of a thunderstorm, characterized by one or more channels that appear to crawl along the underside of the anvil. They typically appear during the weakening or dissipating stage of the parent thunderstorm, or during an active MCS.
Back-Building Thunderstorm - A thunderstorm in which new development takes place on the upwind side (usually the west or southwest side), such that the storm seems to remain stationary or propagate in a backward direction.
Back-Sheared Anvil - [Slang], a thunderstorm anvil which spreads upwind, against the flow aloft. A back-sheared anvil often implies a very strong updraft and a high severe weather potential.
Backing - A counterclockwise shift in wind direction (for example, south winds shifting to the east).
Bear's Cage - [Slang], a region of storm-scale rotation, in a thunderstorm, which is wrapped in heavy precipitation. This area often coincides with a radar hook echo and/or mesocyclone, especially one associated with an HP storm. The term reflects the danger involved in observing such an area visually, which must be done at close range in low visibility.
Beaver's Tail - [Slang], a particular type of inflow band with a relatively broad, flat appearance suggestive of a beaver's tail. It is attached to a supercell's general updraft and is oriented roughly parallel to the pseudo-warm front, i.e., usually east to west or southeast to northwest. As with any inflow band, cloud elements move toward the updraft, i.e., toward the west or northwest. Its size and shape change as the strength of the inflow changes. See also inflow stinger.
Bounded Weak Echo Region (BWER) - (Also known as a vault.) Radar signature within a thunderstorm characterized by a local minimum in radar reflectivity at low levels which extends upward into, and is surrounded by, higher reflectivities aloft. This feature is associated with a strong updraft and is almost always found in the inflow region of a thunderstorm. It cannot be seen visually.
Bow Echo - A radar echo which is linear but bent outward in a bow shape. Damaging straight-line winds often occur near the "crest" or center of a bow echo. Areas of circulation also can develop at either end of a bow echo, which sometimes can lead to tornado formation - especially in the left (usually northern) end, where the circulation exhibits cyclonic rotation.
Bulk Richardson Number - A non-dimensional (i.e., no units) number relating vertical stability to vertical shear (generally, stability divided by shear). High values indicate unstable and/or weakly-sheared environments; low values indicate weak instability and/or strong vertical shear. Generally, values in the range of around 50 to 100 suggest environmental conditions favorable for supercell development.
Cap - (also called "Lid") A layer of relatively warm air aloft, usually several thousand feet above the ground, which suppresses or delays the development of thunderstorms. Air parcels rising into this layer become cooler than the surrounding air, which inhibits their ability to rise further and produce thunderstorms. As such, the cap often prevents or delays thunderstorm development even in the presence of extreme instability. However, if the cap is removed or weakened, then explosive thunderstorm development can occur. The cap is an important ingredient in most severe thunderstorm episodes, as it serves to separate warm, moist air below and cooler, drier air above. With the cap in place, air below it can continue to warm and/or moisten, thus increasing the amount of potential instability. Or, air above it can cool, which also increases potential instability. But without a cap, either process (warming/moistening at low levels or cooling aloft) results in a faster release of available instability - often before instability levels become large enough to support severe weather development.
Clear Slot - With respect to severe thunderstorms, a local region of clearing skies or reduced cloud cover, indicating an intrusion of drier air; often seen as a bright area with higher cloud bases on the west or southwest side of a wall cloud. A clear slot is believed to be a visual indication of a rear flank downdraft.
Collar Cloud - A generally circular ring of cloud that may be observed on rare occasions surrounding the upper part of a wall cloud. This term sometimes is used (incorrectly) as a synonym for wall cloud.
Comma Echo - A thunderstorm radar echo which has a comma-like shape. It often appears during latter stages in the life cycle of a bow echo.
Convection - In meteorology, the term is used specifically to describe vertical transport of heat and moisture in the atmosphere, especially by updrafts and downdrafts in an unstable atmosphere. The terms "convection" and "thunderstorms" often are used interchangeably, although thunderstorms are only one form of convection. Cbs, towering cumulus clouds, and ACCAS clouds all are visible forms of convection. However, convection is not always made visible by clouds. Convection which occurs without cloud formation is called dry convection, while the visible convection processes referred to above are forms of moist convection.
Convective Boundary Layer - The unstable boundary layer that forms at the surface and grows upward through the day as the ground is heated by the sun and convective currents transfer heat upwards into the atmosphere.
Convective Outlook - A forecast containing the area(s) of expected thunderstorm occurrence and expected severity over the contiguous United States, issued several times daily by the SPC. The terms approaching, slight risk, moderate risk, and high risk are used to describe severe thunderstorm potential. Local versions sometimes are prepared by local NWS offices.
Couplet - Adjacent maxima of radial velocities of opposite signs.
Cyclic Storm - A thunderstorm that undergoes cycles of intensification and weakening (pulses) while maintaining its individuality. Cyclic supercells are capable of producing multiple tornadoes (i.e., a tornado family) and/or several bursts of severe weather.
Debris Cloud - A rotating "cloud" of dust or debris, near or on the ground, often appearing beneath a condensation funnel and surrounding the base of a tornado. This term is similar to dust whirl, although the latter typically refers to a circulation which contains dust but not necessarily any debris. A dust plume, on the other hand, does not rotate. Note that a debris cloud appearing beneath a thunderstorm will confirm the presence of a tornado, even in the absence of a condensation funnel.
Derecho - (Pronounced day-RAY-cho), a widespread and usually fast-moving windstorm associated with convection. Derechos include any family of downburst clusters produced by an extratropical MCS, and can produce damaging straight-line winds over areas hundreds of miles long and more than 100 miles across.
Dew Point - A measure of atmospheric moisture. It is the temperature to which air must be cooled in order to reach saturation (assuming air pressure and moisture content are constant). A higher dew point indicates more moisture present in the air. It is sometimes referred to as Dew Point Temperature, and sometimes written as one word (Dewpoint).
Directional Shear - The component of wind shear which is due to a change in wind direction with height, e.g., southeasterly winds at the surface and southwesterly winds aloft. A veering wind with height in the lower part of the atmosphere is a type of directional shear often considered important for tornado development.
Doppler Radar - Radar that can measure radial velocity, the instantaneous component of motion parallel to the radar beam (i.e., toward or away from the radar antenna).
Downburst - A strong downdraft current of air from a cumulonimbus cloud, often associated with intense thunderstorms. Downdrafts may produce damaging winds at the surface.
Downdraft - A small-scale column of air that rapidly sinks toward the ground, usually accompanied by precipitation as in a shower or thunderstorm. A downburst is the result of a strong downdraft.
Dry Line - A boundary separating moist and dry air masses, and an important factor in severe weather frequency in the Great Plains. It typically lies north-south across the central and southern high Plains states during the spring and early summer, where it separates moist air from the Gulf of Mexico (to the east) and dry desert air from the southwestern states (to the west). The dry line typically advances eastward during the afternoon and retreats westward at night. However, a strong storm system can sweep the dry line eastward into the Mississippi Valley, or even further east, regardless of the time of day. A typical dry line passage results in a sharp drop in humidity (hence the name), clearing skies, and a wind shift from south or southeasterly to west or southwesterly. (Blowing dust and rising temperatures also may follow, especially if the dry line passes during the daytime. These changes occur in reverse order when the dry line retreats westward. Severe and sometimes tornadic thunderstorms often develop along a dry line or in the moist air just to the east of it, especially when it begins moving eastward.
Dry Line Storm - Any thunderstorm that develops on or near a dry line.
Dry Microburst - A microburst with little or no precipitation reaching the ground; most common in semi-arid regions. They may or may not produce lightning. Dry microbursts may develop in an otherwise fair-weather pattern; visible signs may include a cumulus cloud or small Cb with a high base and high-level virga, or perhaps only an orphan anvil from a dying rain shower. At the ground, the only visible sign might be a dust plume or a ring of blowing dust beneath a local area of virga.
Echo - Energy back scattered from a target (precipitation, clouds, etc.) and received by and displayed on a radar screen.
Enhanced Fujita Scale - A scale of tornado intensity in which wind speeds are inferred from an analysis of wind damage.
Flanking Line - A line of cumulus or towering cumulus clouds connected to and extending outward from the most active part of a supercell, normally on the southwest side. The line normally has a stair-step appearance, with the tallest clouds closest to the main storm.
Flash Flood - A rapid and extreme flow of high water into a normally dry area, or a rapid water level rise in a stream or creek above a predetermined flood level, beginning within six hours of the causative event (e.g., intense rainfall, dam failure, ice jam). However, the actual time threshold may vary in different parts of the country. Ongoing flooding can intensify to flash flooding in cases where intense rainfall results in a rapid surge of rising flood waters.
Flash Flood Warning - Issued to inform the public, emergency management, and other cooperating agencies that flash flooding is in progress, imminent, or highly likely.
Flash Flood Watch - Issued to indicate current or developing hydrologic conditions that are favorable for flash flooding in and close to the watch area, but the occurrence is neither certain or imminent.
Flood - Any high flow, overflow, or inundation by water which causes or threatens damage.
Forward Flank Downdraft - The main region of downdraft in the forward, or leading, part of a supercell, where most of the heavy precipitation is.
Funnel Cloud - A condensation funnel extending from the base of a towering cumulus or Cb, associated with a rotating column of air that is not in contact with the ground (and hence different from a tornado). A condensation funnel is a tornado, not a funnel cloud, if either a) it is in contact with the ground or b) a debris cloud or dust whirl is visible beneath it.
Gust - A rapid fluctuation of wind speed with variations of 10 knots or more between peaks and lulls.
Gust Front - The leading edge of gusty surface winds from thunderstorm downdrafts; sometimes associated with a shelf cloud or roll cloud. See also gustnado or outflow boundary.
Gustnado - A gustnado is a small, whirlwind which forms as an eddy in thunderstorm outflows. They do not connect with any cloud-base rotation and are not tornadoes. Since their origin is associated with cumuliform clouds, gustnadoes will be classified as Thunderstorm Wind events. Like dust devils, some stronger gustnadoes can cause damage.
Hail - Showery precipitation in the form of irregular pellets or balls of ice more than 5 mm in diameter, falling from a cumulonimbus cloud.
Hook Echo - A radar reflectivity pattern characterized by a hook-shaped extension of a thunderstorm echo, usually in the right-rear part of the storm (relative to its direction of motion). A hook often is associated with a mesocyclone, and indicates favorable conditions for tornado development.
HP Supercell - High-Precipitation storm (or High-Precipitation supercell). A supercell thunderstorm in which heavy precipitation (often including hail) falls on the trailing side of the mesocyclone. Precipitation often totally envelops the region of rotation, making visual identification of any embedded tornadoes difficult and very dangerous. Unlike most classic supercells, the region of rotation in many HP storms develops in the front-flank region of the storm (i.e., usually in the eastern portion). HP storms often produce extreme and prolonged downburst events, serious flash flooding, and very large damaging hail events.
Ice Crystals - A barely visible crystalline form of ice that has the shape of needles, columns or plates. Ice crystals are so small that they seem to be suspended in air. Ice crystals occur at very low temperatures in a stable atmosphere.
In-Cloud Lightning - Lightning that takes place within the cloud.
Inflow Bands - Bands of low clouds, arranged parallel to the low-level winds and moving into or toward a thunderstorm. They may indicate the strength of the inflow of moist air into the storm, and, hence, its potential severity. Spotters should be especially wary of inflow bands that are curved in a manner suggesting cyclonic rotation; this pattern may indicate the presence of a mesocyclone.
Inflow Jets - Local jets of air near the ground flowing inward toward the base of a tornado.
Inflow Notch - A radar signature characterized by an indentation in the reflectivity pattern on the inflow side of the storm. The indentation often is V-shaped, but this term should not be confused with V-notch. Supercell thunderstorms often exhibit inflow notches, usually in the right quadrant of a classic supercell, but sometimes in the eastern part of an HP storm or in the rear part of a storm (rear inflow notch).
Instability - The tendency for air parcels to accelerate when they are displaced from their original position; especially, the tendency to accelerate upward after being lifted. Instability is a prerequisite for severe weather - the greater the instability, the greater the potential for severe thunderstorms.
Jet Stream - Relatively strong winds concentrated in a narrow stream in the atmosphere, normally referring to horizontal, high-altitude winds. The position and orientation of jet streams vary from day to day. General weather patterns (hot/cold, wet/dry) are related closely to the position, strength and orientation of the jet stream (or jet streams). A jet stream at low levels is known as a low-level jet.
Landspout - [Slang], a tornado that does not arise from organized storm-scale rotation and therefore is not associated with a wall cloud (visually) or a mesocyclone (on radar). Landspouts typically are observed beneath Cbs or towering cumulus clouds (often as no more than a dust whirl), and essentially are the land-based equivalents of waterspouts.
Lifted Index (LI) - Lifted Index. A common measure of atmospheric instability. Its value is obtained by computing the temperature that air near the ground would have if it were lifted to some higher level (around 18,000 feet, usually) and comparing that temperature to the actual temperature at that level. Negative values indicate instability - the more negative, the more unstable the air is, and the stronger the updrafts are likely to be with any developing thunderstorms. However there are no "magic numbers" or threshold LI values below which severe weather becomes imminent.
Lightning - A visible electrical discharge produced by a thunderstorm. The discharge may occur within or between clouds, between the cloud and air, between a cloud and the ground or between the ground and a cloud.
Lightning Channel - The irregular path through the air along which a lightning discharge occurs. A typical discharge of flash between the ground and the cloud is actually a composite flash which is composed of several sequential lightning strokes, each of which is initiated by a leader and terminated by a return streamer.
Line Echo Wave Pattern (LEWP) - A radar echo pattern formed when a segment of a line of thunderstorms surges forward at an accelerated rate.
Loaded Gun Sounding - [Slang], a sounding characterized by extreme instability but containing a cap, such that explosive thunderstorm development can be expected if the cap can be weakened or the air below it heated sufficiently to overcome it.
Low Level Jet (LLJ) - A region of relatively strong winds in the lower part of the atmosphere. Specifically, it often refers to a southerly wind maximum in the boundary layer, common over the Plains states at night during the warm season (spring and summer). The term also may be used to describe a narrow zone of strong winds above the boundary layer, but in this sense the more proper term would be low-level jet stream.
LP Supercell - Low-Precipitation storm (or Low-Precipitation supercell). A supercell thunderstorm characterized by a relative lack of visible precipitation. Visually similar to a classic supercell, except without the heavy precipitation core. LP storms often exhibit a striking visual appearance; the main tower often is bell-shaped, with a corkscrew appearance suggesting rotation. They are capable of producing tornadoes and very large hail. Radar identification often is difficult relative to other types of supercells, so visual reports are very important. LP storms almost always occur on or near the dry line, and thus are sometimes referred to as dry line storms.
Macroburst - A convective downdraft with an affected outflow area of at least 2.5 miles wide and peak winds lasting between 5 and 20 minutes. Intense macrobursts may cause tornado-force damage of up to F3 intensity.
Mammatus Clouds - Rounded, smooth, sack-like protrusions hanging from the underside of a cloud (usually a thunderstorm anvil). Mammatus clouds often accompany severe thunderstorms, but do not produce severe weather; they may accompany non-severe storms as well.
Mesocyclone (or Meso) - A storm-scale region of rotation, typically around 2-6 miles in diameter and often found in the right rear flank of a supercell (or often on the eastern, or front, flank of an HP storm). The circulation of a mesocyclone covers an area much larger than the tornado that may develop within it. Properly used, mesocyclone is a radar term; it is defined as a rotation signature appearing on Doppler radar that meets specific criteria for magnitude, vertical depth, and duration. It will appear as a yellow solid circle on the Doppler velocity products. Therefore, a mesocyclone should not be considered a visually-observable phenomenon (although visual evidence of rotation, such as curved inflow bands, may imply the presence of a mesocyclone)
Mesoscale Convective Complex (MCC) - A large Mesoscale Convective System (MCS), generally round or oval-shaped, which normally reaches peak intensity at night. The formal definition includes specific minimum criteria for size, duration, and eccentricity (i.e., "roundness"), based on the cloud shield as seen on infrared satellite photographs: * Size: Area of cloud top -32 degrees C or less: 100,000 square kilometers or more (slightly smaller than the state of Ohio), and area of cloud top -52 degrees C or less: 50,000 square kilometers or more. * Duration: Size criteria must be met for at least 6 hours. * Eccentricity: Minor/major axis at least 0.7. MCCs typically form during the afternoon and evening in the form of several isolated thunderstorms, during which time the potential for severe weather is greatest. During peak intensity, the primary threat shifts toward heavy rain and flooding.
Mescoscale Convective System (MCS) - A complex of thunderstorms which becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms, and normally persists for several hours or more. MCSs may be round or linear in shape, and include systems such as tropical cyclones, squall lines, and MCCs (among others). MCS often is used to describe a cluster of thunderstorms that does not satisfy the size, shape, or duration criteria of an MCC.
Microburst - A convective downdraft with an affected outflow area of less than 2.5 miles wide and peak winds lasting less than 5 minutes. Microbursts may induce dangerous horizontal/vertical wind shears, which can adversely affect aircraft performance and cause property damage.
Multicell Thunderstorm - These thunderstorms are organized in clusters of at least 2-4 short-lived cells. Each cell generates a cold air outflow and these individual outflows combine to form a large gust front. Convergence along the gust front causes new cells to develop every 5 to 15 minutes. The cells move roughly with the mean wind. However, the area (storm) motion usually deviates significantly from the mean wind due to discrete propagation (new cell development) along the gust front. The multicellular nature of the storm is usually apparent on radar with multiple reflectivity cores and maximum tops.
Multiple Vortex Tornado - A tornado in which two or more condensation funnels or debris clouds are present at the same time, often rotating about a common center or about each other. Multiple-vortex tornadoes can be especially damaging.
National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) - One of NOAA's internationally known Environmental Research Laboratories, leading the way in investigations of all aspects of severe weather. Headquartered in Norman OK with staff in Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Utah, and Wisconsin, the people of NSSL, in partnership with the National Weather Service, are dedicated to improving severe weather warnings and forecasts in order to save lives and reduce property damage.
NOAA Weather Radio - NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts National Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day. It is provided as a public service by NOAA. The NOAA Weather Radio network has more than 480 stations in the 50 states and near adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and U.S. Pacific Territories.
Outflow Boundary - A storm-scale or mesoscale boundary separating thunderstorm-cooled air (outflow) from the surrounding air; similar in effect to a cold front, with passage marked by a wind shift and usually a drop in temperature. Outflow boundaries may persist for 24 hours or more after the thunderstorms that generated them dissipate, and may travel hundreds of miles from their area of origin. New thunderstorms often develop along outflow boundaries, especially near the point of intersection with another boundary (cold front, dry line, another outflow boundary, etc.; see triple point).
Overshooting Top - A dome-like protrusion above a thunderstorm anvil, representing a very strong updraft and hence a higher potential for severe weather with that storm. A persistent and/or large overshooting top (anvil dome) often is present on a supercell. A short-lived overshooting top, or one that forms and dissipates in cycles, may indicate the presence of a pulse storm.
Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) - Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) wording is used in rare situations when long-lived, strong and violent tornadoes are possible. This enhanced wording may also accompany severe thunderstorm watches for intense convective wind storms.
PDS Watch - The Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) wording is used in rare situations when long-lived, strong and violent tornadoes are possible. This enhanced wording may also accompany severe thunderstorm watches for intense convective wind storms.
Pendant Echo - Radar signature generally similar to a hook echo, except that the hook shape is not as well defined.
Popcorn Convection - Slang for showers and thunderstorms that form on a scattered basis with little or no apparent organization, usually during the afternoon in response to diurnal heating. Individual thunderstorms typically are of the type sometimes referred to as air-mass thunderstorms: they are small, short-lived, very rarely severe, and they almost always dissipate near or just after sunset.
Positive Cloud to Ground Lightning - A CG flash that delivers positive charge to the ground, as opposed to the more common negative charge. Positive CGs have been found to occur more frequently in some severe thunderstorms. Their occurrence is detectable by most lightning detection networks, but visually it is not considered possible to distinguish between a positive CG and a negative CG. (Some claim to have observed a relationship between staccato lightning and positive CGs, but this relationship is as yet unproven.)
Pre-Frontal Squall Line - A line of thunderstorms that precedes an advancing cold front.
Public Severe Weather Outlook - These are issued when the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma anticipates an especially significant and/or widespread outbreak of severe weather. This outlook will stress the seriousness of the situation, defines the threat area, and provides information on the timing of the outbreak. The lead time on this outlook is normally less than 36 hours prior to the severe weather event.
Pulse Storm - A thunderstorm within which a brief period (pulse) of strong updraft occurs, during and immediately after which the storm produces a short episode of severe weather. These storms generally are not tornado producers, but often produce large hail and/or damaging winds. See also overshooting top.
Radar Reflectivity - The sum of all backscattering cross-sections (e.g., precipitation particles) in a pulse resolution volume divided by that volume. The radar reflectivity can be related to the radar reflectivity factor through the dielectric constant term |K|^2, and the radar wavelength.
Radial Velocity - Component of motion toward or away from a given location. As "seen" by Doppler radar, it is the component of motion parallel to the radar beam. (The component of motion perpendicular to the beam cannot be seen by the radar. Therefore, strong winds blowing strictly from left to right or from right to left, relative to the radar, can not be detected.)
Rain Foot - Slang for a horizontal bulging near the surface in a precipitation shaft, forming a foot-shaped prominence. It is a visual indication of a wet microburst.
Rear Flank Downdraft - A region of dry air subsiding on the back side of, and wrapping around, a mesocyclone. It often is visible as a clear slot wrapping around the wall cloud. Scattered large precipitation particles (rain and hail) at the interface between the clear slot and wall cloud may show up on radar as a hook or pendant; thus the presence of a hook or pendant may indicate the presence of an RFD.
Ribbon Lightning - Appears to be a broad stream of fire. A succession of strokes, each blown a bit to the side of the previous strokes by wind, but striking so fast that all the strokes are seen at once as a ribbon-like flash.
Right Mover - A thunderstorm that moves appreciably to the right relative to the main steering winds and to other nearby thunderstorms. Right movers typically are associated with a high potential for severe weather. (Supercells often are right movers).
Roll Cloud - A low, horizontal tube-shaped arcus cloud associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or sometimes with a cold front). Roll clouds are relatively rare; they are completely detached from the thunderstorm base or other cloud features, thus differentiating them from the more familiar shelf clouds. Roll clouds usually appear to be "rolling" about a horizontal axis, but should not be confused with funnel clouds.
Rope (Funnel or Tornado) - A narrow, often contorted condensation funnel usually associated with the decaying stage of a tornado. See rope stage.
SCUD (Scattered Cumulus Under Downdraft) - Small, ragged, low cloud fragments that are unattached to a larger cloud base and often seen with and behind cold fronts and thunderstorm gust fronts. Such clouds generally are associated with cool moist air, such as thunderstorm outflow.
Severe Thunderstorm - A thunderstorm that produces a tornado, winds of at least 58 mph (50 knots), and/or hail at least 0.75" in diameter. Structural wind damage may imply the occurrence of a severe thunderstorm. A thunderstorm wind equal to or greater than 40 mph (35 knots) and/or hail of at least 0.50" is defined as approaching severe.
Severe Thunderstorm Warning - This is issued when either a severe thunderstorm is indicated by the WSR-88D radar or a spotter reports a thunderstorm producing hail 3/4 inch or larger in diameter and/or winds equal or exceed 58 miles an hour; therefore, people in the affected area should seek safe shelter immediately. Severe thunderstorms can produce tornadoes with little or no advance warning. Lightning frequency is not a criteria for issuing a severe thunderstorm warning. They are usually issued for a duration of one hour. They can be issued without a Severe Thunderstorm Watch being already in effect. Like a Tornado Warning, the Severe Thunderstorm Warning is issued by your National Weather Service Forecast Office (NWFO). Severe Thunderstorm Warnings will include where the storm was located, what towns will be affected by the severe thunderstorm, and the primary threat associated with the severe thunderstorm warning. If the severe thunderstorm will affect the nearshore or coastal waters, it will be issued as the combined product--Severe Thunderstorm Warning and Special Marine Warning. If the severe thunderstorm is also causing torrential rains, this warning may also be combined with a Flash Flood Warning. If there is an ampersand (&) symbol at the bottom of the warning, it indicates that the warning was issued as a result of a severe weather report. After it has been issued, the affected NWFO will follow it up periodically with Severe Weather Statements. These statements will contain updated information on the severe thunderstorm and they will also let the public know when the warning is no longer in effect.
Severe Thunderstorm Watch - This is issued by the National Weather Service when conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms in and close to the watch area. A severe thunderstorm by definition is a thunderstorm that produces 3/4 inch hail or larger in diameter and/or winds equal or exceed 58 miles an hour. The size of the watch can vary depending on the weather situation. They are usually issued for a duration of 4 to 8 hours. They are normally issued well in advance of the actual occurrence of severe weather. During the watch, people should review severe thunderstorm safety rules and be prepared to move a place of safety if threatening weather approaches. A Severe Thunderstorm Watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Prior to the issuance of a Severe Thunderstorm Watch, SPC will usually contact the affected local National Weather Service Forecast Office (NWFO) and they will discuss what their current thinking is on the weather situation. Afterwards, SPC will issue a preliminary Severe Thunderstorm Watch and then the affected NWFO will then adjust the watch (adding or eliminating counties/parishes) and then issue it to the public by way of a Watch Redefining Statement. During the watch, the NWFO will keep the public informed on what is happening in the watch area and also let the public know when the watch has expired or been cancelled.
Shear - Variation in wind speed (speed shear) and/or direction (directional shear) over a short distance within the atmosphere. Shear usually refers to vertical wind shear, i.e., the change in wind with height, but the term also is used in Doppler radar to describe changes in radial velocity over short horizontal distances.
Shelf Cloud - A low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus cloud, associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the absence of thunderstorms). Unlike the roll cloud, the shelf cloud is attached to the base of the parent cloud above it (usually a thunderstorm). Rising cloud motion often can be seen in the leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn.
Single Cell Thunderstorm - This type of thunderstorm develops in weak vertical wind shear environments. On a hodograph, this would appear as a closely grouped set of random dots around the center of the graph. They are characterized by a single updraft core and a single downdraft that descends into the same area as the updraft. The downdraft and its outflow boundary then cut off the thunderstorm inflow. This causes the updraft and the thunderstorm to dissipate. Single cell thunderstorms are short-lived. They only last about 1/2 hour to an hour. These thunderstorms will occasionally become severe (3/4 inch hail, wind gusts in the excess of 58 miles an hour, or a tornado), but only briefly. In this case, they are called Pulse Severe Thunderstorms.
SKYWARN - A nationwide network of volunteer weather spotters who report to and are trained by the National Weather Service. These spotters report many forms of significant or severe weather such as Severe Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, Hail, Heavy Snow, or Flooding. Contact your local National Weather Service Forecast Office to learn about SKYWARN activities in your area.
Spearhead Echo - A radar echo associated with a downburst with a pointed appendage extending toward the direction of the echo motion. The appendage moves much faster than the parent echo, which is drawn into the appendage. During it's mature stage, the appendage turns into a major echo and the parent echo loses its identity.
Speed Shear - The component of wind shear which is due to a change in wind speed with height, e.g., southwesterly winds of 20 mph at 10,000 feet increasing to 50 mph at 20,000 feet. Speed shear is an important factor in severe weather development, especially in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere.
Squall - A strong wind characterized by a sudden onset in which the wind speed increases at least 16 knots and is sustained at 22 knots or more for at least one minute. 2. In nautical use, a severe local storm considered as a whole, that is, winds and cloud mass and (if any) precipitation, thunder and lightning.
Squall Line - A line of active thunderstorms, either continuous or with breaks, including contiguous precipitation areas resulting from the existence of the thunderstorms.
Steering Winds - A prevailing synoptic scale flow which governs the movement of smaller features embedded within it.
Stepped Leader - A faint, negatively charged channel that emerges from the base of a thunderstorm and propagates toward the ground in a series of steps of about 1 microsecond duration and 50-100 meters in length, initiating a lightning stroke.
Storm Motion - The speed at which a thunderstorm travels.
Storm Relative - Measured relative to a moving thunderstorm, usually referring to winds, wind shear, or helicity.
Supercell Thunderstorm - Potentially the most dangerous of the convective storm types. Storms possessing this structure have been observed to generate the vast majority of long-lived strong and violent (F2-F5) tornadoes, as well as downburst damage and large hail. It is defined as a thunderstorm consisting of one quasi-steady to rotating updraft which may exist for several hours. Supercells usually move to the right of the mean wind. These are called "Right Movers" and they are favored with veering winds. Occasionally, these thunderstorms will move to the left of the mean wind. These thunderstorms are called "Left Movers". These supercells typically don't last as long as their "Right Mover" cousins and they usually only produce large hail (greater than 3/4 inch in diameter) and severe wind gusts in the excess of 58 miles an hour. Left Movers are favored when you have backing winds. Radar will observe essentially one long-lived cell, but small perturbations to the cell structure may be evident. The stronger the updraft, the better the chance that the supercell will produce severe (hail greater than 3/4 inch in diameter, wind gusts greater than 58 miles an hour, and possibly a tornado) weather. Severe supercell development is most likely in an environment possessing great buoyancy (CAPE) and large vertical wind shear. A Bulk Richardson Number of between 15 and 35 favor supercell development. Typically, the hodograph will look like a horse shoe. This is due to the wind speed increasing rapidly with height and the wind direction either veering or backing rapidly with height.
SWEAT Index - Severe Weather ThrEAT index; a stability index developed by the Air Force which incorporates instability, wind shear, and wind speeds as follows: SWEAT=(12 Td 850 ) + (20 [TT-49]) +( 2 f 850) + f 500 + (125 [s+0.2]) where Td 850 is the dew point temperature at 850 mb, TT is the total-totals index, f 850 is the 850-mb wind speed (in knots), f 500 is the 500-mb wind speed (in knots), and s is the sine of the angle between the wind directions at 500 mb and 850 mb (thus representing the directional shear in this layer). SWEAT values of about 250-300 or more indicate a greater potential for severe weather, but as with all stability indices, there are no magic numbers. The SWEAT index has the advantage (and disadvantage) of using only mandatory-level data (i.e., 500 mb and 850 mb), but has fallen into relative disuse with the advent of more detailed upper air sounding analysis programs.
Tail-End Charlie - Slang for the thunderstorm at the southernmost end of a squall line or other line or band of thunderstorms. Since low-level southerly inflow of warm, moist air into this storm is relatively unimpeded, such a storm often has a higher probability of strengthening to severe levels than the other storms in the line.
Thunder - The sound caused by rapidly expanding gases in a lightning discharge.
Thunderstorm - A local storm produced by a cumulonimbus cloud and accompanied by lightning and thunder.
Tilted Storm - A thunderstorm or cloud tower which is not purely vertical but instead exhibits a slanted or tilted character. It is a sign of vertical wind shear, a favorable condition for severe storm development.
Tilted Updraft - A thunderstorm updraft which is not purely vertical but instead exhibits a slanted or tilted character. It is a sign of vertical wind shear, a favorable condition for severe storm development.
Tornado - A violently rotating column of air, usually pendant to a cumulonimbus, with circulation reaching the ground. It nearly always starts as a funnel cloud and may be accompanied by a loud roaring noise. On a local scale, it is the most destructive of all atmospheric phenomena.
Tornado Emergency - An exceedingly rare tornado warning issued when there is a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage from an imminent or ongoing tornado. This tornado warning is reserved for situations when a reliable source confirms a tornado, or there is clear radar evidence of the existence of a damaging tornado, such as the observation of debris.
Tornado Family - A series of tornadoes produced by a single supercell, resulting in damage path segments along the same general line.
Tornado Vortex Signature - An image of a tornado on the Doppler radar screen that shows up as a small region of rapidly changing wind speeds inside a mesocyclone. The following velocity criteria is normally required for recognition: velocity difference between maximum inbound and outbound (shear) is greater than or equal to 90 knots at less than 30 nmi and is greater than or equal to 70 knots between 30 and 55 nmi. It shows up as a red upside down triangle on the Storm Relative Velocity Display. Existence of a TVS strongly increases the probability of tornado occurrence, but does not guarantee it; therefore, the feature triggering it must be examined closely by the radar operator. A TVS is not a visually observable feature.
Tornado Warning - This is issued when a tornado is indicated by the WSR-88D radar or sighted by spotters; therefore, people in the affected area should seek safe shelter immediately. They can be issued without a Tornado Watch being already in effect. They are usually issued for a duration of around 30 minutes. A Tornado Warning is issued by your local National Weather Service office (NWFO). It will include where the tornado was located and what towns will be in its path. If the tornado will affect the nearshore or coastal waters, it will be issued as the combined product--Tornado Warning and Special Marine Warning. If the thunderstorm which is causing the tornado is also producing torrential rains, this warning may also be combined with a Flash Flood Warning. If there is an ampersand (&) symbol at the bottom of the warning, it indicates that the warning was issued as a result of a severe weather report. After it has been issued, the affected NWFO will followed it up periodically with Severe Weather Statements. These statements will contain updated information on the tornado and they will also let the public know when warning is no longer in effect.
Tornado Watch - This is issued by the National Weather Service when conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes in and close to the watch area. Their size can vary depending on the weather situation. They are usually issued for a duration of 4 to 8 hours. They normally are issued well in advance of the actual occurrence of severe weather. During the watch, people should review tornado safety rules and be prepared to move a place of safety if threatening weather approaches. A Tornado Watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma. Prior to the issuance of a Tornado Watch, SPC will usually contact the affected local National Weather Forecast Office (NWFO) and they will discuss what their current thinking is on the weather situation. Afterwards, SPC will issue a preliminary Tornado Watch and then the affected NWFO will then adjust the watch (adding or eliminating counties/parishes) and then issue it to the public. After adjusting the watch, the NWFO will let the public know which counties are included by way of a Watch Redefining Statement. During the watch, the NWFO will keep the public informed on what is happening in the watch area and also let the public know when the watch has expired or been cancelled.
Total-Totals Index - A stability index and severe weather forecast tool, equal to the temperature at 850 mb plus the dew point at 850 mb, minus twice the temperature at 500 mb. The total-totals index is the arithmetic sum of two other indices: the Vertical Totals Index (temperature at 850 mb minus temperature at 500 mb) and the Cross Totals Index (dew point at 850 mb minus temperature at 500 mb). As with all stability indices there are no magic threshold values, but in general, values of less than 50 or greater than 55 are considered weak and strong indicators, respectively, of potential severe storm development.
Updraft - A small-scale current of rising air. If the air is sufficiently moist, then the moisture condenses to become a cumulus cloud or an individual tower of a towering cumulus or Cb.
Veering - A clockwise shift in wind direction (for example, south winds shifting to the west).
Wall Cloud - A localized, persistent, often abrupt lowering from a rain-free base. Wall clouds can range from a fraction of a mile up to nearly five miles in diameter, and normally are found on the south or southwest (inflow) side of the thunderstorm. When seen from within several miles, many wall clouds exhibit rapid upward motion and cyclonic rotation. However, not all wall clouds rotate. Rotating wall clouds usually develop before strong or violent tornadoes, by anywhere from a few minutes up to nearly an hour. Wall clouds should be monitored visually for signs of persistent, sustained rotation and/or rapid vertical motion. "Wall cloud" also is used occasionally in tropical meteorology to describe the inner cloud wall surrounding the eye of a tropical cyclone, but the proper term for this feature is eyewall.
Warm Sector - A region of warm surface air between a cold front and a warm front.
Waterspout - In general, a tornado occurring over water. Specifically, it normally refers to a small, relatively weak rotating column of air over water beneath a Cb or towering cumulus cloud. Waterspouts are most common over tropical or subtropical waters. The exact definition of waterspout is debatable. In most cases the term is reserved for small vortices over water that are not associated with storm-scale rotation (i.e., they are the water-based equivalent of landspouts). But there is sufficient justification for calling virtually any rotating column of air a waterspout if it is in contact with a water surface.
Wedge Tornado - Slang for a large tornado with a condensation funnel that is at least as wide (horizontally) at the ground as it is tall (vertically) from the ground to cloud base. The term "wedge" often is used somewhat loosely to describe any large tornado. However, not every large tornado is a wedge. A true wedge tornado, with a funnel at least as wide at the ground as it is tall, is very rare. Wedges often appear with violent tornadoes (F4 or F5 on the Fujita Scale), but many documented wedges have been rated lower. And some violent tornadoes may not appear as wedges (e.g., Xenia, OH on 3 April 1974, which was rated F5 but appeared only as a series of suction vortices without a central condensation funnel). Whether or not a tornado achieves "wedge" status depends on several factors other than intensity - in particular, the height of the environmental cloud base and the availability of moisture below cloud base. Therefore, spotters should not estimate wind speeds or F-scale ratings based on visual appearance alone. However, it generally is safe to assume that most (if not all) wedges have the potential to produce strong (F2/F3) or violent (F4/F5) damage.
Wet Microburst - A microburst accompanied by heavy precipitation at the surface. A rain foot may be a visible sign of a wet microburst.
- Severe Storms & Supercells
- Tornado FAQ
- Where Tornadoes Occur
- Enhanced Fujita Scale
- Tornado Safety and Preparedness
- Tornadoes: Fact Vs. Myth
- Flooding and Flash Flooding
- Severe Weather Glossary
Severe Weather Blogs
- Are tornadoes getting stronger and more frequent?
- Dr. Jeff Masters: Complete List of Tornado Blogs
- Christopher C. Burt: World's Deadliest Tornadoes
- Christopher C. Burt: World's Largest Hailstones