Tornado in a Glass Science Activity

What is a tornado?

Tornado

A tornado is a rotating column of air that rotates violently and is in contact with the surface of the Earth and the base of a cumulus cloud.

What causes a tornado?

A tornado can form during a large thunderstorm. As you may know, inside thunderclouds, warm, humid air rises, whilst cool air falls along with rain or hail. These conditions can cause air to spin inside the cloud. The spinning currents start our horizontal. For tornados those horizontal currents turn vertical and drop down from the cloud to touch the surface of the Earth.

Tornado in a glass experiment

A simple way to visualize how the column of air rotates is to replicate it in water. Using dish soap as the visual cue, young students can easily put this activity together.

Tornado in a glass experiment

Here’s what you need:

A glass, glass cup or glass jar

A stirrer – a straw, pencil or chopstick

Water

Liquid dish soap

Instructions:

Fill the glass with about 2/3 water.

Carefully drip a few drops of the dish soap on the surface of the water.

Hold onto the glass with one hand, with the other hand grab your stirrer.

Stir the water in a circular motion quickly until you start seeing the water rotating in a column and bubbles forming on the top of the surface.

Remove the stirrer and observe.

What happens:

When you stir the water, a vortex is created in the glass. This is like the spinning column of air in a tornado. In these columns, the water (or air in an actual tornado) on the outside moves faster than the water on the inside. This is the reason strong winds are felt on the outside of a tornado, but the wind at the center of the tornado is calm.

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