Classifying types of tornadoes/incorrect terminology

May 31, 2004
Peotone, IL
I am going to post an excerpt from my blog today the full blog can be found here ... NOTE: This is just MY observations and opinion, but I feel some things can be taken away and learned from my blog. I originally didn't want to post it, but I gave in and am aware people may have a differing opinion. If you do, comment on my blog or comment in this thread.

.....This brings me to my main point.... How does one determine the type of tornado they are actually seeing? Everyone knows when you are on a chase and in the vicinity of a supercell that emotions and adrenaline are running at all time highs. When that tornado drops and sustains itself it seems like nowadays everything is reported as large and extremely dangerous. I take issue with this because it is misleading and causes more issues than the chaser can imagine. Let me put the NWS/EM cap on for a second....

DRAMATIZATION: There is a moderate risk for my area, conditions look good for tornadoes (some strong), and I take a look at all my resources I have available for that day. I coordinate with different offices, check into the ham net, and take a look at Spotter Network to see where people are setting up. I may even call some local chasers I know will be in my area. Time progresses and storms start to develop and take supercellular characteristics. Suddenly wall cloud reports start flooding in as the storm looms 50 miles away from the office (which is located on the outskirts of a pretty big population center.) Things start to get hectic. Time to start preparing for the incoming storm. Time to send out the fire/police spotters, activating nets, and evacuating outdoor events. A couple of funnel cloud reports start coming in as the storm is now 35 miles away and moving in this direction. It will be here in an hour, time to ponder issuing a tornado warning for our area. Suddenly reports start flooding in.... "tornado in progress" "Multiple vortex tornado" "LARGE tornado" By now the storm is 20 miles away and closing in fast, if I am a forecaster for the NWS I am monitoring every available source from spotter network to direct contact with ham nets. Spotter Network reports are claiming a large tornado is in progress while ham reports are seeing a large lowering with intermittent spin ups. Finally as the storm closes to within 10 miles, both sources are adamant in reporting a large tornado moving toward the town. Time to pull the trigger and use very suggestive text (I.E tornado emergency.) The storm passes over with some gusty winds and hail but no tornado. Is this a warning success or failure? If I was the NWS I would think I did my job because I took what I was seeing on radar, coupled it with what I saw on Spotter Network, and what I heard from my spotters out there. Each source was reliable and I did what I thought was the right measures of safety to take. The NWS can't possibly be blamed for this can they? I am going to say NO. The responsibility lies with the chaser/spotter. In this case, the large tornado is pictured below (remember this is just a hypothetical dramatization of an event that CAN happen)

Now is this a large tornado? In my opinion it is not. Let me explain as to why this may be reported as large. Say we have been tracking this storm for an hour now and have gotten up close and personal with the area of interest. We've seen this rotation go from a broad unorganized mess to a tight violently rotating mass. In the chasers mind this storm is primed to put down something major. What is okay to report in this situation? Do I report my thoughts about what could happen or only what is happening? The answer is what is happening. Drop an icon stating you are viewing a large wall cloud with strong rotation and where you are and where it is and where it is going. So now the anticipation builds, you may glance down at the map and see a large town in the path and start to get concerned. In you mind you need to do everything you can to warn this town so you might be inclined to use suggestive wording and tend to exaggerate a bit. Your intentions are good but in reality you aren't doing much good to anybody when you let emotions take over your common sense.

Someone reported this tornado above as a large and extremely dangerous tornado. Is it large? Maybe to someone who has never seen a tornado before. All tornadoes can be extremely dangerous so I have never quite understood the notion to add that into a warning text. The same with the word destructive. A lot of times though when those words are uttered it causes the NWS to issue strongly worded warnings/statements which contributes to the some of the criticism received about the use of tornado emergency.

This is not a finger pointing or "greater than thou" blog post where I am condemning the NWS/EMs or other chasers and spotters. I have been in the chaser position before and also have had many discussions about this with different NWS personnel (maybe some can chime in?) While I have never inaccurately reported what I saw, I have been wrong on chases before with what I am seeing. The key is if you don't know then don't report it. Pertaining to the discussion my advice is to simply report a tornado. Report where you are, where you see the tornado, and where is it going.

Sticking with the topic of tornado types I want to post some images below and interject my opinion on what type of tornado it is and how it should be reported. REMEMBER THIS IS ONLY MY OPINION, TAKE IT FOR WHAT IT IS WORTH!

Tornado #1 -
Can this be classified as a large tornado? No. Can this be classified as dangerous? Absolutely, but should the spotter make that call? I am not so sure. This is an elephant trunk tornado spawned out of a large bowl shaped wall cloud with strong rotation. It was given an EF2 rating and maintained its' shape and size through its' duration.

Tornado #2
What about this tornado? Can it be classified as a large tornado? I am still going to go with no. It is pretty decent sized tornado and bigger than tornado #1 but in my opinion it is not LARGE.

It lies all within the eye of the beholder. Technically all tornadoes are large to the human eye because compared to you and me, a tornado is quite large. However, how do we draw the line between small tornado/large tornado/wedge tornado. The easy one is the wedge tornado which I will hint on below, but where do you draw the line between what's a small tornado (#1 and the picture above that) to a medium sized tornado (#2) to a large tornado pictured below.

Tornado #3
This is what I would classify as a large tornado. It is filling the sky, obvious large shape and certainly capable of producing widespread damage. Would you expect tornado #1 to do the same amount of damage as tornado #3? I know when you are out there in the heat of the chase you won't have time to think back about previous tornadoes, but I pose this question. Would you report tornado #1 as you would report tornado #3? Would you feel foolish calling tornado #1 a large tornado only to have #3 drop right after #1? How would you report #3 if you reported #1 as a large tornado? Would you call it a wedge? You would be wrong.

A wedge tornado is simply described as a tornado that is wider than it is tall. Can you say any of the tornadoes I have provided are wider than they are tall? If you say yes I would strongly disagree with you.

Could any of these tornadoes be considered wedge tornadoes? I would say no. They are of a large size but are not wedge tornadoes and should not be reported as such. So you may ask what IS a wedge tornado?


So to recap.... It is important to accurately report what is going on. If you don't know specifics, give a general description. Don't be afraid to report if you are confident, but don't abuse the word "wedge" or "large." Thanks for reading!
Thank you, I made an unofficial resolution for New Years to start giving back to the community that I have learned from for over a decade. So as a result I want to try to write at least one or two times a week something helpful that maybe someone can take with them on their way chasing. I still learn things while out chasing and I hope to pass that information along. With chasing being an all time high in popularity, I feel more of us should speak up and teach the way to be a successful chaser instead of ignoring the fact that more people are out there on the roads.
Danny, I must say thank you for taking the time to write up these excellent threads. They are definitely a good resource for new chasers and spotters alike.