Shelf Cloud and Lightning Image Mimics Mesocyclone and Tornado


At first glance, this photo by Clint Elko in El Paso, Illinois on May 28, 2016 might look like a mesocyclone, wall cloud and tornado dropping down to the road. However, it is actually a shelf cloud with the aftermath of a cloud-to-ground lightning strike.

A shelf cloud or arcus cloud is a low, ominous-looking horizontal cloud formation associated with the leading edge of a thunderstorm but is not associated with tornadoes. Shelf clouds can be associated with vortices that are visible with scud clouds and twisting, rising dust, but the vortices are known as a gustnado, not a tornado. A shelf cloud can be associated with high winds, but not the extreme high winds of a tornado.

Photographer Clint Elko reports that the tornado-looking image in his photograph is actually the aftermath of a lightning strike in El Paso, Illinois — north of Bloomington and east of Peoria. The photo by Clint Elko was awarded the National Weather Service Photo of the Week yesterday.

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