A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. They are often referred to as twisters or cyclones, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology, in a wider sense, to name any closed low pressure circulation. Tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes, but they are typically in the form of a visible condensation funnel, whose narrow end touches the earth and is often encircled by a cloud of debris and dust. Most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 110 miles per hour (177 km/h), are about 250 feet (76 m) across, and travel a few miles (several kilometers) before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 300 miles per hour (483 km/h), stretch more than two miles (3.2 km) across, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles (more than 100 km).
Various types of tornadoes include the landspout, multiple vortex tornado, and waterspout. Waterspouts are characterized by a spiraling funnel-shaped wind current, connecting to a large cumulus or cumulonimbus cloud. They are generally classified as non-supercellular tornadoes that develop over bodies of water, but there is disagreement over whether to classify them as true tornadoes. These spiraling columns of air frequently develop in tropical areas close to the equator, and are less common at high latitudes. Other tornado-like phenomena that exist in nature include the gustnado, dust devil, fire whirls, and steam devil; downbursts are frequently confused with tornadoes, though their action is dissimilar.
Tornadoes have been observed on every continent except Antarctica. However, the vast majority of tornadoes occur in the Tornado Alley region of the United States, although they can occur nearly anywhere in North America. They also occasionally occur in south-central and eastern Asia, northern and east-central South America, Southern Africa, northwestern and southeast Europe, western and southeastern Australia, and New Zealand. Tornadoes can be detected before or as they occur through the use of Pulse-Doppler radar by recognizing patterns in velocity and reflectivity data, such as hook echoes or debris balls, as well as by the efforts of storm spotters.
There are several scales for rating the strength of tornadoes. The Fujita scale rates tornadoes by damage caused and has been replaced in some countries by the updated Enhanced Fujita Scale. An F0 or EF0 tornado, the weakest category, damages trees, but not substantial structures. An F5 or EF5 tornado, the strongest category, rips buildings off their foundations and can deform large skyscrapers. The similar TORRO scale ranges from a T0 for extremely weak tornadoes to T11 for the most powerful known tornadoes. Doppler radar data, photogrammetry, and ground swirl patterns (cycloidal marks) may also be analyzed to determine intensity and assign a rating A tornado near Anadarko, Oklahoma. The funnel is the thin tube reaching from the cloud to the ground. The lower part of this tornado is surrounded by a translucent dust cloud, kicked up by the tornado's strong winds at the surface. The wind of the tornado has a much wider radius
A tornado is not necessarily visible; however, the intense low pressure caused by the high wind speeds (as described by Bernoulli's principle) and rapid rotation (due to cyclostrophic balance) usually causes water vapor in the air to condense into cloud droplets due to adiabatic cooling. This results in the formation of a visible funnel cloud or condensation funnel.
There is some disagreement over the definition of funnel cloud and condensation funnel. According to the Glossary of Meteorology, a funnel cloud is any rotating cloud pendant from a cumulus or cumulonimbus, and thus most tornadoes are included under this definition. Among many meteorologists, the funnel cloud term is strictly defined as a rotating cloud which is not associated with strong winds at the surface, and condensation funnel is a broad term for any rotating cloud below a cumuliform cloud.
Tornadoes often begin as funnel clouds with no associated strong winds at the surface, and not all funnel clouds evolve into tornadoes. Most tornadoes produce strong winds at the surface while the visible funnel is still above the ground, so it is difficult to discern the difference between a funnel cloud and a tornado from a distance.