Anatomy of a Super Cell

Towering dark gray clouds reach into the sky in the distance. A top-hat shaped formation appears above the column of clouds. The edges of the cloud mass are puffy and rolled up. The front of the air mass curves as it slopes to the ground. A super cell thunderstorm is the most severe and largest type of thunderstorm. Super cells typically deliver hail, heavy rain, wind, and tornadoes.

Super cells can be either large or small storms and contain a rotating mini cyclone called a mesocyclone. Mesocyclones are a vortex of air inside a super cell that rises and rotates on a vertical axis. These provide the fuel for a super cell when combined with warm moist air. Super cells have a continual rotating updraft. From top to bottom, these massive storms have multiple parts that all work together to form an immense and dangerous weather event.

Overshooting top

This portion of the storm is above the anvil shaped column of clouds that form the bulk of the storm. The overshooting top is made up clouds pushed there through updraft.


Formed in the uppermost parts of thunderstorm, the anvil is cold and virtually precipitation free. Since there is so little moisture in the anvil, winds can move freely. The clouds take on their anvil shape when the rising air reaches 40,000-60,000 or more feet. The anvil’s discerning feature is that it juts out in front of the storm, almost like a shelf.

Precipitation-free base

Also called the main updraft area, this region of a super cell is located beneath the main updraft area of the storm. It is not always precipitation free. Hail and rain is common in the main updraft area.

Wall cloud

The wall cloud is the area with updraft and down drafts. Rain cooled clouds are pulled into the updraft, causing the formation of a bank of clouds below the precipitation free area. Wall clouds with a good deal of up and down movement, or with a long life (10 minutes or more) might be an indication of a tornado. If a tornado occurs, it will happen within the wall cloud.

Mammatus clouds

These pillow like clouds form beneath the anvil when cold air from the anvil sinks into the warmer are below. Often bumpy in appearance, these clouds are an indication of strong and severe weather.

Precipitation area

This is the area of the heaviest rainfall in the super cell. It’s also called the rain core or hail core. It’s located beneath the wall cloud and the most violent hail and rainstorms are generated in the area where updrafts and down drafts meet.

Forward Flank

This mass of clouds is placed outside the front leading edge of a storm. Flanking lines are made up of cumulus clouds that are formed by warm, rising air.

Flanking Line

This feature is located above the precipitation-free base and extends outward behind the storm. The flanking line is made up of cumulus clouds that often are fed back into the updraft of the super cell.