Was it a tornado? Here is how to tell.

By: Brandon Orr
By: Brandon Orr

Snapped a photo of a tornado? Chances are, it was actually something else. Meteorologist Brandon Orr explains.

The squall line that plowed through eastern Kentucky Tuesday night created quite a stir. We have awesome viewers that sent in hundreds of photos. Some of them wondered if what they saw was a tornado. Thankfully, there were no tornadoes in eastern Kentucky from this severe weather event and only one funnel cloud in Lee County, which matched up with rotation on PinPoint Doppler. So if some of the ominous clouds sent in are not tornadoes, what are they? They could be several things.

Shelf Clouds

These are identified by a low, horizontal wedge-shaped cloud on the leading edge of the thunderstorm. This marks the area where rain-cooled air is blowing down and out ahead the the thunderstorm, forcing the warm, humid air ahead of it to rise rapidly forming the clouds. Here are several photos of shelf clouds sent in to WYMT after Tuesday's storms. 

Paintsville, KY

Dillon Burchett - Paintsville, KY

Sandra Wilder - Paintsville, KY


Scud Clouds

Scud clouds are low, raggad clouds that can develop low to the ground and extend up to the base of the cloud. They hardly rotate, but signal warm air rising rather quickly, causing condensation. Photos of these can look shockingly like tornadoes, but are not associated with significant rotation. Here are some examples from Tuesday afternoon.

Cumberland, KY

Barry Dean - Louisa, KY

Connor Newsome - Prestonsburg, KY


Wall Clouds

A wall cloud is an abrupt lowering from the cloud base, often free from rain, that usually shows some rotation. We had this photo sent to WYMT in Jackson, KY from the storms on June 4. You can see the lowering in the photo and rotation within this thunderstorm on PinPoint Doppler. 

Roy Bolling - Jackson, KY - 6/4/14


You can see how easy it is to misidentify shelf, scud, or wall clouds with tornadoes. You can compare the clouds you have seen Tuesday afternoon to those above to identify it! 

- SkyAlert Meteorologist Brandon Orr (Find me on Facebook!)

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