Thunderstorms and Severe Weather

Table of Contents:
Information provided by the National Weather Service

   Thunderstorms and Atmospheric Conditions
   The Thunderstorm Life Cycle
   Thunderstorm Types
   Visual Aspects of Thunderstorms
   Wall Clouds and Other Lowerings
   Non-Tornadic Severe Weather Phenomena
   The Tornado
navagation bars
Wall Clouds and other Lowerings

Wall Clouds

     The wall cloud is defined as an isolated cloud lowering attached to the rain free base. The wall cloud is usually to the rear (generally south or southwest) of the visible precipitation area. Sometimes, though, the wall cloud may be to the east or southeast of the precipitation area. This is usually the case with high-precipitation supercells where the precipitation has wrapped around the western edge of the updraft. Wall clouds are usually about two miles in diameter and mark the area of strongest updraft in the storm.

     As the storm intensifies, the updraft draws in low-level air from several miles around. Some low-level air is pulled into the updraft from the rain area. This rain-cooled air is very humid; the moisture in the rain cooled air quickly condenses (at a lower altitude than the rain-free base) to form the wall cloud.

Shelf Clouds and Roll Clouds

     Shelf clouds and roll clouds are examples of "accessory clouds"you may see beneath the cloud base of a storm. Shelf clouds are low wedge-shaped clouds associated with the gust front . Roll clouds are tube-shaped clouds and are also found near the gust front.

     Shelf/roll clouds can develop anywhere an area of outflow is present. Shelf clouds typically form near the leading edge of a storm or squall line. A shelf cloud can form under the rain-free base, however, and take the appearance of a wall cloud. A shelf cloud may also appear to the south west of a wall cloud in association with a phenomena called the rear flank downdraft.

Shelf Clouds vs. Wall Clouds
Wall Clouds
Shelf Clouds
Suggest inflow/updraft
Suggest downdraft/outflow
Maintain position/outflow
Move away from rain with respect to rain
Slope upward away from precip. area
Slope downward away from precip. area

     Shelf clouds signify an area of downdraft and outflow while wall clouds indicate an area of updraft and inflow. If a shelf cloud is observedfor several minutes, it will tend to move away from the precipitation area. A wall cloud, though, will tend to maintain its relative position with respect to the precipitation area. Shelf clouds tend to slope downward away from the precipitation while wall clouds tend to slope upward awayfrom the precipitation area. The table below summarizes these differences.

     Only a few of the lowerings that will be seen when spotting will be legitimate wall clouds, and only a few of these wall clouds will actually produce tomadoes. Once a wall cloud has been positively identified, the next challenge will be to detemmine its tornado potential. There are four main characteristics usually observed with a tornadic wall cloud. First, the wall cloud will be persistent. It may change its shape, but it will be there for 10-20 minutes before the tornado appears. Second, the wall cloud will exhibit PERSISTENT rotation. Sometimes the rotation will be very visible and violent before the tornado develops. Third, strong surface winds will blow in toward the wall cloud from the east or south east (inflow). Usually surface winds of 25-35 miles an hour are obsserved near tornadic wall clouds. Fourth, the wall cloud will exhibit evidence of rapid vertical motion. Small cloud elements in or near the wall clouds will quickly rise up into the rain-free base. Not all tornadic wall clouds will have these characteristics (and some tornadoes do not form from wall clouds), but these four characteristics are good rules of thumb to follow.

Non-Tornadic Severe Weather Phenomena


Last Modified: Mon June 29, 1998