What Makes a Cloud Look Like a Mothership?

Supercells are storms that contain updrafts that rotate about a vertical axis. This rotation is derived from shear in the environmental wind field (that is, a change in wind direction and/ or speed with height) surrounding the storm as it begins to grow. Supercells often produce damaging wind, large hail, and tornadoes, and most strong to violent tornadoes are associated with supercells.

Analogous to cancer cells in a living organism, supercells differ from ordinary thunderstorms in that the rotation of their updraft enables them to overcome the self-limiting mechanisms that bring demise to regular storms. Once formed, a supercell may perpetuate itself for an appreciable length of time, even upon encountering an environment that is hostile to the development of new storms.

The figure below shows the vertical wind field associated with a typical supercell thunderstorm. The background photograph was taken from an airplane by T. Theodore Fujita, looking northeast over eastern Kansas on the afternoon of April 21, 1961. The storm is rotating counter-clockwise (red arrows), which is typical for most long-lived supercells in the Northern Hemisphere.

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The striations of the low-level clouds reflect, in part, converging low-level winds (green and yellow arrows) curving into the rotating updraft of the storm. This rotating updraft is known as a mesocyclone. The anvil-shaped formation at the top of the storm marks the level at which the updrafts reach the stratosphere, lose buoyancy (ie., stop rising) and begin to move downstream (blue arrow).

Source: NOAA

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