Learn about tornadoes in Australia and how they form.

Tornadoes in Australia

Warning about tornadoes

What is a tornado?

How tornadoes form

Measuring tornado intensity

Waterspouts and landspouts

Gustnadoes and dust devils

Tornadoes in Australia

Tornadoes happen in Australia more often than many people realise.

How many tornadoes in Australia each year?

Australia experiences 30–80 tornadoes each year, according to the Allen Research Group. It's likely more, as tornadoes in remote regions may not be reported.

No such thing as 'mini' tornadoes

A common term in Australia is 'mini tornado'. This has no meaning. A tornado is a tornado, regardless of size, intensity or where it occurs.

Tornado outbreaks

Tornado outbreaks can also happen in Australia, though rare. An outbreak is multiple tornadoes associated with a single weather system. For example, on 28 September 2016 at least 7 tornadoes affected South Australia, leading to a state-wide power outage.

Warning about tornadoes

Warnings about tornadoes are issued as part of a severe thunderstorm warning:

  • if a tornado is likely to form
  • when there is strong radar evidence that a tornado may be occurring, or
  • after a confirmed observation.

Learn more about our severe weather warning services.

How we warn about tornadoes

What is a tornado?

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that extends from a cloud to touch the ground. To be classified as a tornado, the rotating column must be in contact with the ground and the parent cloud at the same time.

A tornado is usually associated with:

  • swirling clouds of debris or dust near the ground
  • a funnel-shaped cloud that extends down from the base of the parent cloud.

The parent cloud is either a:

  • cumulus – a tall, puffy cloud, or
  • cumulonimbus – a thunderstorm cloud.

Tornadoes may last from less than a minute to more than an hour. They can range in size from just a few tens of metres to more than a kilometre wide.

Winds inside a tornado can exceed 300 km/h, making them one of the most destructive phenomena in nature.

How tornadoes form

Tornadoes form when weakly rotating air near the surface is rapidly drawn upwards into a cumulus or cumulonimbus cloud.

As the air column rises it stretches, increasing the speed of rotation – like an ice skater spinning faster as they draw in their arms.

There are two main types of tornadoes, which form in different ways.

Supercell tornadoes

Most strong tornadoes are associated with supercell thunderstorms. These thunderstorms form when there is a large change in wind speed and direction with height (vertical wind shear). Learn more about supercell thunderstorms on our Thunderstorms page.

All thunderstorms feature a column of rapidly rising warm air, called an updraft. In a supercell thunderstorm, the updraft itself rotates, though much more slowly than a tornado. This rotating updraft is known as a mesocyclone.

The mesocyclone creates an area of low pressure under the storm. This draws air from the surface upward, creating the stretching needed to form a tornado.

Scientists are still investigating exactly how supercell tornadoes form. However, we know that they are more likely when there is high humidity and strong vertical wind shear in the lowest 1 km of the atmosphere.

In Australia, supercell tornadoes are most common in:

  • central and eastern parts of New South Wales
  • south-east Queensland
  • north-east Victoria.

They are more likely in late spring and early summer, when conditions are most favourable for intense thunderstorms.

Supercell tornadoes can also occur in the outer spiral rainbands of tropical cyclones.

Non-supercell tornadoes

These tornadoes typically form along boundaries between different air masses. For example, cold fronts and sea breeze fronts.

At the boundary, sharp changes in wind direction – horizontal wind shear – can lead to pockets of air rotation. These are called misocyclones.

Above the boundary, fast-growing cumulus clouds create an updraft. This can turn a misocyclone into a fully-fledged tornado.

More than one misocyclone may become a tornado along the same boundary. Sometimes several non-supercell tornadoes form at the same time, at regular intervals along the boundary.

Non-supercell tornadoes can occasionally form along strong cold fronts or squall lines, where lifting of air along the front may help the tornado form. For example, in the cooler months, strong cold fronts moving over southern Australia can produce supercell tornadoes. They develop quickly and move fast. This makes them difficult to forecast and detect.

Photo of a tornado spinning in a grey sky above a suburban street.

Small tornado showing the well-known funnel shape

Measuring tornado intensity

The destructive nature of a tornado makes it extremely difficult to measure the associated winds.

For this reason, we estimate wind speeds based on the amount of damage caused to trees, buildings, and other structures built by humans. It's likely that tornado intensity is underestimated in areas with few damage indicators, such as open fields or grassland.

To measure tornadoes, we use the Enhanced Fujita scale, which ranges from EF0 to EF5. Tornadoes rated EF2 and above are referred to as significant tornadoes.

Enhanced Fujita scale

EF0 – Minor damage

Wind speed: 105–137 km/h

Permanent buildings generally suffer only minor damage. Unprotected sheds, shacks and caravans may sustain moderate to serious damage.

  • Some roof tiles removed.
  • Some damage to gutters and awnings.
  • Branches broken off trees.
  • Shallow-rooted trees pushed over.

Confirmed tornadoes with no reported damage – for example, those in open spaces – have also been rated EF0.

EF1 – Moderate damage

Wind speed: 138–177 km/h

  • Roof sheeting lifted and significant tile roof covering lost.
  • Cabins overturned or badly damaged.
  • Loss of exterior doors.
  • Windows and other glass broken.
EF2 – Considerable damage

Wind speed: 178–217 km/h

  • Large sections of roof structure torn off well-constructed houses.
  • Foundations of frame homes shifted.
  • Cabins completely destroyed.
  • Large trees snapped or uprooted.
  • Light object missiles generated.
  • Cars lifted off the ground.
EF3 – Severe damage

Wind speed: 218–266 km/h

  • Entire storeys of well-constructed multi-story homes destroyed.
  • Most walls collapsed, except small interior rooms of single-storey homes.
  • Severe damage to large buildings such as shopping centres.
  • Trains overturned.
  • Trees debarked.
  • Large cars lifted off the ground and thrown.
  • Structures with weak foundations badly damaged.
EF4 – Devastating damage

Wind speed: 267–322 km/h

  • Well-constructed and whole frame houses completely levelled.
  • Some frame homes may be swept away.
  • Cars and other large objects thrown, small missiles.
EF5 – Incredible damage

Wind speed greater than 322 km/h

  • Well-built frame houses destroyed, with foundations swept clean of debris.
  • Steel-reinforced concrete structures critically damaged.
  • Tall buildings collapse or have severe structural deformations.
  • Cars, trucks and trains can be thrown more than 1 km.

Waterspouts and landspouts

Technically, the term waterspout refers only to a non-supercell tornado that occurs over water. However, it can be difficult for an observer to know how the tornado formed. For this reason, waterspout generally refers to any tornado over water.

Waterspouts are commonly observed along the east coast of Australia and the coast around Darwin (Top End), particularly during the warmer months. Learn more about marine weather

A non-supercell tornado over land is called a landspout.

Gustnadoes and dust devils

Gustnadoes and dust devils are not tornadoes.

A gustnado is a short-lived, shallow vortex that forms along thunderstorm outflows. Unlike tornadoes, gustnadoes are usually not connected to the overlying cloud.

Dust devils (willy-willies) are rapidly rotating columns of dust-filled air. They form on clear days over hot and dry surfaces. As very hot air in contact with the surface accelerates upward, the rotating column stretches and intensifies.


Severe weather warnings

View the National warnings summary.