Breakdown: Cold Air Funnels - what are they & why they form

Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 5:35 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Several cold air funnels have been spotted across the Mid-South recently.

Cold air funnels look scary but most of the time they are harmless.

Because the updrafts within these showers are relatively weak compared to that found in supercell thunderstorms, there is less energy available for rotation.

However, on rare occasions they can touch down and cause EF-0 level (winds up to 85 mph) tornado damage.

Below is a video showing where one actually did briefly touch down in a field in northeast Arkansas.

If they do touch down, they can then be referred to as tornadoes, but even then they rarely cause much damage, often comparable to that of a very strong dust devil. In fact, when these cold air funnels do touch down, they are sometimes referred to as landspouts.

This graphic explains the differences between landspouts and cold air funnels.
This graphic explains the differences between landspouts and cold air funnels.(National Weather Service)

It’s usually not necessary for the National Weather Service to issue Tornado Warnings for cold air funnels since it is so rare for them to make it all the way to the ground and become a tornado.

They are also difficult to detect on radar since they are very weak.

While cold air funnel clouds are unique, but they aren’t totally rare. These funnels aren’t associated with a intense, rotating thunderstorms, but rather spotty showers or just cumulus clouds. They form in and around weak convective showers.

They are called cold air funnels because they typically form beneath showers or weak thunderstorms when air in the atmosphere is especially cold, according to the National Weather Service.

How cold air funnels form
How cold air funnels form(National Weather Service)

They most commonly occur in the Spring and Fall when the sun is able to heat up the lower levels of the atmosphere causing convection to bubble up and form showers, but temperatures around 15,000 to 20,000 feet above the ground are quite cold.

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