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What's really going on inside a tornado? How fast are the strongest winds, and what are the chances that any given location will experience them when a tornado passes by?
Due to the difficulties of measuring wind speeds in tornadoes, scientists don't have answers to these questions. However, a collaborative project between researchers at the University of Miami and NCAR has been seeking clues with new, highly detailed computer simulations of tornado wind fields.
The simulations can be viewed in a series of animations, created by NCAR scientist George Bryan, that provide a 3D window into the evolving wind fields of idealized tornadoes at different rates of rotation.
The "high-swirl animation" depicts a powerful tornado with 200-plus mph winds, the purple tubelike structures depict the movements of rapidly rotating vortices. Near-surface winds are represented by colors ranging from light blue (less than 20 meters per second, or 45 mph) to deep red (more than 100 meters per second, or 224 miles per hour). The vortices and winds are contained within a condensation cloud that rises more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) above the surface.