Last updated
Supercell diagram with the mesocyclone rotation in red. Supercell side view.jpg
Supercell diagram with the mesocyclone rotation in red.

A mesocyclone is a meso-gamma mesoscale (or storm scale) region of rotation (vortex), typically around 2 to 6 mi (3.2 to 9.7 km) in diameter, most often noticed on radar within thunderstorms. In the northern hemisphere it is usually located in the right rear flank (back edge with respect to direction of movement) of a supercell, or often on the eastern, or leading, flank of a high-precipitation variety of supercell. The area overlaid by a mesocyclone’s circulation may be several miles (km) wide, but substantially larger than any tornado that may develop within it, and it is within mesocyclones that intense tornadoes form. [1]



Mesocyclones are medium-scale vortices of rising and converging air that circulate around a vertical axis. They are most often associated with a local region of low-pressure. Their rotation is (usually) in the same direction as low pressure systems in a given hemisphere: counter-clockwise in the northern, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere, with the only occasional exceptions being the smallest-scale mesocyclones. Meso Anticyclones that rotate in an opposite direction may accompany mesocyclones within a supercell but these tend to be weaker and often more transient than mesocyclones, which can be sustained for tens of minutes or hours, and also cyclically form in succession within a supercell.

A mesocyclone is usually a phenomenon that is difficult to observe directly. Visual evidence of rotation – such as curved inflow bands – may suggest the presence of a mesocyclone, but the cylinder of circulating air is often too large to be recognized when viewed from the ground, or may not carry clouds distinct enough from the surrounding calmer air to make the circulating air flow obvious. Mesocyclones are best detected on Doppler weather radar as a rotation signature which meets specific criteria for magnitude, vertical depth, and duration. On U.S. NEXRAD radar displays, they are typically highlighted by a yellow solid circle on the Doppler velocity display; other weather services may have other conventions.

Within thunderstorms

They are of greatest concern when contained within severe thunderstorms, since mesocyclones often occur together with updrafts in supercells, within which tornadoes may form near the interchange with a downdraft.

Mesocyclones are localized, approximately 2 km (1.2 mi) to 10 km (6.2 mi) in diameter within strong thunderstorms. [2] Thunderstorms containing persistent mesocyclones are supercell thunderstorms (although some supercells and even tornadic storms do not produce lightning or thunder and thus are not technically thunderstorms). Doppler weather radar is used to identify mesocyclones. A mesovortex is a similar but typically smaller and weaker rotational feature associated with squall lines.


Mesocyclones form when strong changes of wind speed and/or direction with height ("wind shear") sets parts of the lower part of the atmosphere spinning in invisible tube-like rolls. The convective updraft of a storm then draws up this spinning air, tilting the rolls' orientation upward (from parallel to the ground to perpendicular) and causing the entire updraft to rotate as a vertical column. [3]

As the updraft rotates and ingests cooler, moister air from the forward flank downdraft (FFD), it may form a wall cloud, a spinning layer of clouds lowered from ambient storm cloud base under the mid-level mesocyclone. The wall cloud tends to form closer to the center of the mesocyclone. As it descends, a funnel cloud may form near its center. This is usually the first visible stage of development of a tornado.

The gallery below shows the 3 stages of development of a mesocyclone and a view of the storm relative motion on radar of a mesocyclone-producing tornado over Greensburg, Kansas on 4 May 2007. The storm was in the process of producing an EF5 tornado at the time of the image.


The most reliable way to detect a mesocyclone is by Doppler weather radar. Nearby high values of opposite sign within velocity data are how they are detected. [4] Mesocyclones are most often located in the right-rear flank of supercell thunderstorms and when embedded within squall lines (whereas mesovortices most often form in the front flank of squall lines), and may be distinguished by a hook echo rotation signature on a weather radar map. Visual cues such as a rotating wall cloud or tornado may also hint at the presence of a mesocyclone. This is why the term has entered into wider usage in connection with rotating features in severe storms.

Tornado formation

A tornado developing under a wall cloud within a mesocyclone near Falcon, Colorado Funnels Over Falcon.jpg
A tornado developing under a wall cloud within a mesocyclone near Falcon, Colorado

Tornado formation is not completely understood, but often occurs in one of two ways. [5] [6]

In the first method, two conditions must be satisfied:

First, a horizontal spinning effect must form on the Earth's surface. This usually originates in sudden changes in wind direction or speed, known as wind shear. [7]
Second, a thundercloud[ colloquialism],or occasionally a cumulus cloud, must be present. [7]

During a thunderstorm, updrafts are occasionally powerful enough to lift the horizontal spinning row of air upwards, turning it into a vertical air column. This vertical air column then becomes the basic structure for the tornado. Tornadoes that form in this way are often weak and generally last less than 10 minutes. [7]

The second method occurs during a supercell thunderstorm, in updrafts within the storm. When winds intensify, the force released can cause the updrafts to rotate. This rotating updraft is known as a mesocyclone. [8]

For a tornado to form in this manner, a rear-flank downdraft enters the center of the mesocyclone from the back. Cold air, being denser than warm air, is able to penetrate the updraft. The combination of the updraft and downdraft completes the development of a tornado. Tornadoes that form in this method are often violent and can last over an hour. [7]

Mesoscale convective vortex

A mesoscale convective vortex (MCV), also known as a mesoscale vorticity center or Neddy eddy, [9] is a mesocyclone within a mesoscale convective system (MCS) that pulls winds into a circling pattern, or vortex, at the mid levels of the troposphere and is normally associated with anticyclonic outflow aloft, with a region of aeronautically troublesome wind shear between the upper and lower air. With a core only 30 to 60 miles (48 to 97 km) wide and 1 to 3 miles (1.6 to 4.8 km) deep, an MCV is often overlooked in standard weather maps. MCVs can persist for up to two days after its parent mesoscale convective system has dissipated. [9]

The orphaned MCV can become the seed of the next thunderstorm outbreak. An MCV that moves into tropical waters, such as the Gulf of Mexico, can serve as the nucleus for a tropical cyclone. MCVs can produce very large wind storms; sometimes winds can reach over 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). The May 2009 Southern Midwest Derecho was an extreme progressive derecho and mesoscale convective vortex event that struck southeastern Kansas, southern Missouri, and southwestern Illinois on 8 May 2009.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tornado</span> Violently rotating column of air in contact with both the Earths surface and a cumulonimbus cloud

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. It is often referred to as a twister, whirlwind or cyclone, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology to name a weather system with a low-pressure area in the center around which, from an observer looking down toward the surface of the Earth, winds blow counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. Tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes, and they are often visible in the form of a condensation funnel originating from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, with a cloud of rotating debris and dust beneath it. Most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 180 km/h (110 mph), are about 80 m across, and travel several kilometers before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 480 km/h (300 mph), are more than 3 km in diameter, and stay on the ground for more than 100 km.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thunderstorm</span> Type of weather with lightning and thunder

A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. Thunderstorms occur in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus. They are usually accompanied by strong winds and often produce heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. Strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones. While most thunderstorms move with the mean wind flow through the layer of the troposphere that they occupy, vertical wind shear sometimes causes a deviation in their course at a right angle to the wind shear direction.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Supercell</span> Thunderstorm that is characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone

A supercell is a thunderstorm characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone: a deep, persistently rotating updraft. due to this, these storms are sometimes referred to as rotating thunderstorms. Of the four classifications of thunderstorms, supercells are the overall least common and have the potential to be the most severe. Supercells are often isolated from other thunderstorms, and can dominate the local weather up to 32 kilometres (20 mi) away. They tend to last 2–4 hours.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Squall</span> Short, sharp increase in wind speed

A squall is a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed lasting minutes, as opposed to a wind gust, which lasts for only seconds. They are usually associated with active weather, such as rain showers, thunderstorms, or heavy snow. Squalls refer to the increase to the sustained winds over that time interval, as there may be higher gusts during a squall event. They usually occur in a region of strong sinking air or cooling in the mid-atmosphere. These force strong localized upward motions at the leading edge of the region of cooling, which then enhances local downward motions just in its wake.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Squall line</span> Line of thunderstorms along or ahead of a cold front

A squall line, or more accurately a quasi-linear convective system (QLCS), is a line of thunderstorms, often forming along or ahead of a cold front. In the early 20th century, the term was used as a synonym for cold front. Linear thunderstorm structures often contain heavy precipitation, hail, frequent lightning, strong straight-line winds, and occasionally tornadoes or waterspouts. Particularly strong straight-line winds can occur where the linear structure forms into the shape of a bow echo. Tornadoes can occur along waves within a line echo wave pattern (LEWP), where mesoscale low-pressure areas are present. Some bow echoes can grow to become derechos as they move swiftly across a large area. On the back edge of the rainband associated with mature squall lines, a wake low can be present, on very rare occasions associated with a heat burst.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wall cloud</span> Cloud formation occurring at the base of a thunderstorm

A wall cloud is a large, localized, persistent, and often abrupt lowering of cloud that develops beneath the surrounding base of a cumulonimbus cloud and from which tornadoes sometimes form. It is typically beneath the rain-free base (RFB) portion of a thunderstorm, and indicates the area of the strongest updraft within a storm. Rotating wall clouds are an indication of a mesocyclone in a thunderstorm; most strong tornadoes form from these. Many wall clouds do rotate; however, some do not.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hook echo</span> Weather radar signature indicating tornadic circulation in a supercell thunderstorm

A hook echo is a pendant or hook-shaped weather radar signature as part of some supercell thunderstorms. It is found in the lower portions of a storm as air and precipitation flow into a mesocyclone, resulting in a curved feature of reflectivity. The echo is produced by rain, hail, or even debris being wrapped around the supercell. It is one of the classic hallmarks of tornado-producing supercells. The National Weather Service may consider the presence of a hook echo coinciding with a tornado vortex signature as sufficient to justify issuing a tornado warning.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cyclogenesis</span> The development or strengthening of cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere

Cyclogenesis is the development or strengthening of cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere. Cyclogenesis is an umbrella term for at least three different processes, all of which result in the development of some sort of cyclone, and at any size from the microscale to the synoptic scale.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Funnel cloud</span> Funnel-shaped cloud of condensed water droplets, associated with a rotating column of wind

A funnel cloud is a funnel-shaped cloud of condensed water droplets, associated with a rotating column of wind and extending from the base of a cloud but not reaching the ground or a water surface. A funnel cloud is usually visible as a cone-shaped or needle like protuberance from the main cloud base. Funnel clouds form most frequently in association with supercell thunderstorms, and are often, but not always, a visual precursor to tornadoes. Funnel clouds are visual phenomena, these are not the vortex of wind itself.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gustnado</span> Ground vortex formed from a downburst of a thunderstorm

A gustnado is a brief, shallow surface-based vortex which forms within the downburst emanating from a thunderstorm. The name is a portmanteau by elision of "gust front tornado", as gustnadoes form due to non-tornadic straight-line wind features in the downdraft (outflow), specifically within the gust front of strong thunderstorms. Gustnadoes tend to be noticed when the vortices loft sufficient debris or form condensation cloud to be visible although it is the wind that makes the gustnado, similarly to tornadoes. As these eddies very rarely connect from the surface to the cloud base, they are very rarely considered as tornadoes. The gustnado has little in common with tornadoes structurally or dynamically in regard to vertical development, intensity, longevity, or formative process—as classic tornadoes are associated with mesocyclones within the inflow (updraft) of the storm, not the outflow.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vertical draft</span> Small-scale current of rising air

In meteorology, an updraft is a small-scale current of rising air, often within a cloud.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cumulus Congestus cloud</span> Form of cumulus clouds

Cumulus congestus clouds, also known as towering cumulus, are a form of cumulus that can be based in the low or middle height ranges. They achieve considerable vertical development in areas of deep, moist convection. They are an intermediate stage between cumulus mediocris and cumulonimbus, sometimes producing showers of snow, rain, or ice pellets. Precipitation that evaporates before reaching the surface is virga.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anticyclonic tornado</span> Tornado that spins clockwise

An anticyclonic tornado is a tornado which rotates in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and a counterclockwise direction in the Southern Hemisphere. The term is a naming convention denoting the anomaly from normal rotation which is cyclonic in upwards of 98 percent of tornadoes. Many anticyclonic tornadoes are smaller and weaker than cyclonic tornadoes, forming from a different process, as either companion/satellite tornadoes or nonmesocyclonic tornadoes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Landspout</span> Tornado not originating from a mesocyclone

Landspout is a term created by atmospheric scientist Howard B. Bluestein in 1985 for a kind of tornado not associated with a mesocyclone. The Glossary of Meteorology defines a landspout as

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tornadogenesis</span> Process by which a tornado forms

Tornadogenesis is the process by which a tornado forms. There are many types of tornadoes and these vary in methods of formation. Despite ongoing scientific study and high-profile research projects such as VORTEX, tornadogenesis is a volatile process and the intricacies of many of the mechanisms of tornado formation are still poorly understood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rear flank downdraft</span> Type of region

The rear flank downdraft (RFD) is a region of dry air wrapping around the back of a mesocyclone in a supercell thunderstorm. These areas of descending air are thought to be essential in the production of many supercellular tornadoes. Large hail within the rear flank downdraft often shows up brightly as a hook on weather radar images, producing the characteristic hook echo, which often indicates the presence of a tornado.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Overshooting top</span> Part of the convective tower of a thunderstorm

An overshooting top is a dome-like protrusion shooting out of the top of the anvil of a thunderstorm and into the lower stratosphere. When an overshooting top is present for 10 minutes or longer, it is a strong indication that the storm is severe.

Convective storm detection is the meteorological observation, and short-term prediction, of deep moist convection (DMC). DMC describes atmospheric conditions producing single or clusters of large vertical extension clouds ranging from cumulus congestus to cumulonimbus, the latter producing thunderstorms associated with lightning and thunder. Those two types of clouds can produce severe weather at the surface and aloft.

A mesovortex is a small-scale rotational feature found in a convective storm, such as a quasi-linear convective system, a supercell, or the eyewall of a tropical cyclone. Mesovortices range in diameter from tens of miles to a mile or less and can be immensely intense.

The following is a glossary of tornado terms. It includes scientific as well as selected informal terminology.


  1. "Mesocyclone". Glossary of Terms. U.S. National Weather Service. Archived from the original on 2019-09-03. Retrieved 2019-10-17.
  2. "Mesocyclone". Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. June 2000. Archived from the original on 2006-07-09. Retrieved 2006-12-07.
  3. "Vertical Wind Shear". Meteorology guides. University of Illinois. Archived from the original on 2006-11-08. Retrieved 2006-10-21.
  4. "Mesocyclone signature". Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. June 2000. Archived from the original on 2011-05-14. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
  5. "Severe Weather 101: Tornado Basics". NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Archived from the original on August 31, 2018. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  6. Edwards, Roger (19 April 2018). "The Online Tornado FAQ". NOAA Storm Prediction Center. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Archived from the original on March 26, 2018. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  7. 1 2 3 4 "tornadoes ... Nature's Most Violent Storms". Preparedness Guide. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. September 1992. Archived from the original on 2008-06-24. Retrieved 2008-08-03.
  8. "Tornado Formation". Thinkquest. Oracle Corporation. October 2003. Archived from the original on 2008-04-21. Retrieved 2009-08-03.
  9. 1 2 "08 July 1997 -- Mesoscale Convective Complex decays, revealing a Mesoscale Vorticity Center". Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2004-01-22. Archived from the original on 2010-06-09. Retrieved 2010-02-01.