Tornados come in various sizes and can form in different locations. They can range in shape from narrow and rope-like, narrow or fat cylinders, or be cone or wedge-shaped. They also form in different situations. Below are some of the variations.
Some of the most violent tornadoes develop from supercell thunderstorms. A supercell thunderstorm is a long-lived thunderstorm possessing within its structure a continuously rotating updraft of air. These storms have the greatest tendency to produce tornadoes, some of the huge wedge shape. The supercell thunderstorm has a low-hanging, rotating layer of cloud known as a “wall cloud.” It looks somewhat like a layer of a layer cake that hangs below the broader cloud base. One side of the wall cloud is often rain-free, while the other is neighbored by dense shafts of rain. The rotating updraft of the supercell is seen on radar as a “mesocyclone.”
The tornados that accompany supercell thunderstorms are more likely to remain in contact with the ground for long periods of time -- an hour or more -- than other tornadoes, and are more likely to be violent, with winds exceeding 200 mph.
Generally weaker than a supercell tornado, a landspout is not associated with a wall cloud or mesocyclone. It may be observed beneath cumulonimbus or towering cumulus clouds and is the land equivalent of a waterspout. It often forms along the leading edge of rain-cooled downdraft air emanating from a thunderstorm, known as a “gust front.”
Weak and usually short-lived, a gustnado forms along the gust front of a thunderstorm, appearing as a temporary dust whirl or debris cloud. There may be no apparent connection to or circulation in the cloud aloft. These appear like dust devils.
A waterspout is a tornado over water. A few form from supercell thunderstorms, but many form from weak thunderstorms or rapidly growing cumulus clouds. Waterspouts are usually less intense and causes far less damage. Rarely more than fifty yards wide, it forms over warm tropical ocean waters, although its funnel is made of freshwater droplets condensed from water vapor from condensation - not saltwater from the ocean. Waterspouts usually dissipate upon reaching land.
The following are "cousins" to the Tornado.
Dry, hot, clear days on the desert or over dry land can bring about dust devils. Generally forming in the hot sun during the late morning or early afternoon hours, these mostly harmless whirlwinds are triggered by light desert breezes that create a swirling plume of dust with speeds rarely over 70 mph. These differ from tornadoes in that they are not associated with a thunderstorm (or any cloud), and are usually weaker than the weakest tornado.
Typically, the life cycle of a dust devil is a few minutes or less, although they can last much longer. Although usually harmless, they have been known to cause minor damage. They can blow vehicles off the road and could damage your eyes by blowing dust into them.
Sometimes the intense heat created by a major forest fire or volcanic eruption can create what is known as a firewhirl, a tornado-like rotating column of smoke and/or fire. This happens when the fire updraft concentrates some initial weak whirl or eddy in the wind. Winds associated with firewhirls have been estimated at over 100 mph. They are sometimes called fire tornadoes, fire devils, or even firenadoes.