Observed relationship between tornado intensity and pretornadic mesocyclone characteristics

Michael F. Sessa, Robert J. Trapp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In a previous study, idealized model simulations of supercell thunderstorms were used to demonstrate support of the hypothesis that wide, intense tornadoes should form more readily out of wide, rotating updrafts. Observational data were used herein to test the generality of this hypothesis, especially to tornado-bearing convective morphologies such as quasi-linear convective systems (QLCSs), and within environments such as those found in the southeastern United States during boreal spring and autumn. A new radar dataset was assembled that focuses explicitly on the pretornadic characteristics of the mesocyclone, such as width and differential velocity: the pretornadic focus allows us to eliminate the effects of the tornado itself on the mesocyclone characteristics. GR2Analyst was used to manually analyze 102 tornadic events during the period 27 April 2011–1 May 2019. The corresponding tornadoes had damage (EF) ratings ranging from EF0 to EF5, and all were within 100 km of a WSR-88D. A key finding is that the linear regression between the mean, pretornadic mesocyclone width and the EF rating of the corresponding tornado yields a coefficient of determination (R2) value of 0.75. This linear relationship is higher for discrete (supercell) cases (R2 = 0.82), and lower for QLCS cases (R2 = 0.37). Overall, we have found that pretornadic mesocyclone width tends to be a persistent, relatively time-invariant characteristic that is a good predictor of potential tornado intensity. In contrast, the pretornadic mesocyclone intensity (differential velocity) tends to exhibit considerable time variability, and thus would offer less reliability in anticipating tornado intensity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1243-1261
Number of pages19
JournalWeather and Forecasting
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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