Volatility of tornadogenesis: An ensemble of simulated nontornadic and tornadic supercells in VORTEX2 environments

Brice E. Coffer, Matthew D. Parker, Johannes M.L. Dahl, Louis J. Wicker, Adam J. Clark

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Despite an increased understanding of the environments that favor tornado formation, a high false-alarm rate for tornado warnings still exists, suggesting that tornado formation could be a volatile process that is largely internal to each storm. To assess this, an ensemble of 30 supercell simulations was constructed based on small variations to the nontornadic and tornadic environmental profiles composited from the second Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment (VORTEX2). All simulations produce distinct supercells despite occurring in similar environments. Both the tornadic and nontornadic ensemble members possess ample subtornadic surface vertical vorticity; the determinative factor is whether this vorticity can be converged and stretched by the low-level updraft. Each of the 15 members in the tornadic VORTEX2 ensemble produces a long-track, intense tornado. Although there are notable differences in the precipitation and near-surface buoyancy fields, each storm features strong dynamic lifting of surface air with vertical vorticity. This lifting is due to a steady low-level mesocyclone, which is linked to the ingestion of predominately streamwise environmental vorticity. In contrast, each nontornadic VORTEX2 simulation features a supercell with a disorganized low-level mesocyclone, due to crosswise vorticity in the lowest few hundred meters in the nontornadic environment. This generally leads to insufficient dynamic lifting and stretching to accomplish tornadogenesis. Even so, 40% of the nontornadic VORTEX2 ensemble members become weakly tornadic. This implies that chaotic within-storm details can still play a role and, occasionally, lead to marginally tornadic vortices in suboptimal storms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4605-4625
Number of pages21
JournalMonthly Weather Review
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2017


  • Ensembles
  • Mesocyclones
  • Severe storms
  • Supercells
  • Tornadoes
  • Wind shear


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