May 12, 2022

Stormy Weather: DIY Tornado in a Jar

Learn about tornadoes by swirling one in a jar right in your kitchen!

As the air warms throughout the spring months, we may hear more and more about the possibility of tornadoes, one of the coolest weather phenomena meteorologists learn about, but also one of the most dangerous. A tornado is a violently twisting column of air (even up to 300mph!) that touches the ground and often causes damage.

How does a tornado form? While we can never forecast exactly which town a tornado might hit, certain conditions make tornadoes more likely.
Did you know? The United States is the most likely spot in the world to see tornadoes because we get this intense clash of different air, especially with our storms in the spring!

We often see active tornado days along a very strong cold front, when very warm and humid air is clashing into drier, colder air. This creates a battleground with a lot of lift, or instability in the atmosphere.

The conditions are ripe for tornadoes on the warm side of this front, when the air becomes very humid or unstable. But humidity is just one ingredient for tornadoes.

Tornadoes also need wind shear, or change in wind speed or direction with height. Wind shear and instability, or humidity, help the thunderstorm grow tall, towering the cumulonimbus clouds.

The amygdala is a bundle of important nerve cells deep inside the brain. Everyone has two amygdales—there’s one in each half of the brain. The amygdala works with the parts of the brain that control memory, behavior and emotion, and this tiny group of cells packs a big punch when it comes to emotions, especially stress and fear.

Most people don’t like to feel scared, but humans are fascinated by it! Think of all the spookiness in the month of October. The rush of energy and emotion people get by being scared can be enjoyable in controlled situations, like a scary movie or an amusement park ride.

No matter the source of the scare, the amygdala’s role is the same. The amygdala is like a bridge connecting two very different parts of the brain: the part that controls the body functions you aren’t aware of (like breathing) and the part that “thinks” for you.

This means that when your amygdala gets information that tells you something scary is happening, it can send signals that make your heart race and your breathing get faster, making you feel scared!

These ingredients start to let the wind swirl. This spin starts horizontally in the thunderstorm clouds, but as instability creates rising air and rising motion, the horizontal rotating column can get turned vertically. When this vertical spin touches the ground, a tornado has formed and anything in its path is in danger.

We assess tornado strength by examining the damage it leaves behind using something called the Enhanced Fujita Scale. It labels the tornado 0 through 5 in the order of its wind speed and damage.

Make a Tornado in a Jar

Learn about tornadoes by swirling one in a jar right in your kitchen!

Age range: Elementary, middle school

Prep time: 5-10 minutes

Learning time: 15 minutes


  • Mason jar with lid
  • Water
  • Glitter
  • Measuring teaspoon
  • 1 teaspoon liquid dish soap
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar


1. Pour water into your jar until it’s roughly two-thirds full.

2. Then, add glitter…any color is fine!

3. Add in one teaspoon of liquid dish soap and one teaspoon of white vinegar.

4. Put the lid on the jar. Make sure it’s on as tight as possible to avoid leaks and serious messes.

5. Shake the jar and give it a twist so that the liquid inside starts spinning.

Your glitter represents the debris that the tornado picks up when its vortex hits the ground. The liquid dish soap and white vinegar help create the swirling, destructive vortex!

Learn more about science within our atmosphere with a visit to Discovery Place Science!