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June 8, 2009

Unraveling the Mysteries of Tornadoes

When it comes to large U.S. cities, Oklahoma City has the dubious distinction of ranking number one in tornado activity. Living with the threat of tornadoes is a part of life here. But on May 3, 1999, life for many Oklahoma City residents was changed forever from that very threat.

Greg Carbin was eight miles away from what is simply referred to here as the May 3rd tornado. He remembers looking up to the sky and seeing the massive thunderhead in the distance. Carbin recalls his thoughts as "this one is big. It's just different."

He was right, too. That day, an unforgettable tornado ripped through parts of Oklahoma City and its suburbs, killing at least 36, injuring several hundred and causing over one billion dollars in damage.

"It's difficult for the atmosphere to put something like this together but when it does it's striking, and that's what sticks with me to this day," says long-time resident Carbin.

Watching for Violent Storms, 24/7

Greg Carbin knows a lot about severe weather. He's a meteorologist at the storm prediction center, located just south of Oklahoma City in Norman, Okla.

In a quiet room on the second floor of the National Weather Center building, meteorologists are standing guard twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, keeping an eye on weather systems that could unleash violent storms and tornadoes. The meteorologists issue storm watches as needed.

"The mission of the storm prediction the protection of life and property by getting the word out in advance of hazardous weather events such as tornadoes and severe thunderstorms."

Tornadoes occur in all 50 states, even Alaska. Nationwide, they are reported year round, but in the spring time, the area that covers a large swath of the Midwest, known as tornado alley, is ground zero for their development. Tornadoes often strike with little or no warning. In the United States, they kill about 70 people a year and injure close to 1,500.

Tornado, Or Rain Shower?

The ingredients that make up a tornado, like wind speed, temperature and moisture content, all have to be just right for a tornado to form.

"You take away a small bit of your ingredients and you end up with something that's a rain shower as opposed to a violent storm. And we don't understand necessarily the mixing and matching of these ingredients for all these variety of recipes to produce tornadoes," says Carbin.

To better understand tornadoes, scientists like Yvette Richardson, with the help of the National Science Foundation, are embarking on a quest to unravel the mysteries of tornadoes.

"This will hopefully give us the knowledge we need to improve warnings, to maybe improve forecasts. To improve our general understanding of how something works always arms us better," Says Richardson.

In Search of Tornadoes

The project is called VORTEX2, but it could also be called the amazing chase. For five weeks in the spring of 2009, and again in spring 2010, 100 researchers and scientists from 16 universities will deploy about 40 vehicles armed with high tech equipment to measure and probe tornadoes and tornado development. The researchers will span across the Midwest in search of tornadoes--all to better understand how, when and why they form.

Standing by an instrument that might resemble a carpet steam cleaner out of a Dr. Seuss classic, Isaac Hankes, a researcher at the University of Illinois says, "We'll use this (device) to measure the size distribution of precipitation that's falling inside the storm. Set these down, jump back in the van and wait for the storm to pass and then try to do it all again."

VORTEX2 will also examine the winds inside a tornado near ground level.

"That's where we live and those are the winds that impact us and those are the winds we have very little information about" says Karen Kosiba with the Center for Severe Weather research in Boulder, Colo.

Even unmanned aircraft will be used to venture into storms to measure winds, temperature and moisture.

Staying Safe

The project has its challenges. Safety is the number one concern for the researchers. They are required to have an escape route from each storm they encounter.

Another challenge is just being away from home. When your travel plans are at the whim of the severe weather systems, you could easily end up booking a different hotel each night for a hundred people. VORTEX2 has a logistical coordinator to handle that.

In their personal lives, researchers will have to manage everything from taking care of pets to doing laundry and paying bills for five weeks while being away from home. Jim Ladue will be taking photos of storms. He works for the National Weather Service and has to make some alternate arrangements for his kids. "I'm actually bringing my mother over to baby sit for five weeks."

Michael Biggerstaff is with the University of Oklahoma. He'll be researching the winds on the outside of thunderstorms. He says it can be rough on the family. "But they are also very, very supportive because they understand we're all involved in trying to do something that will benefit them and benefit our communities. So really, in the end, it's a lot of support and a lot of love that they give us."

They'll need that support, too. When the weather gets rough, researchers could easily be logging 14 hour days. Yvette Richardson notes they are all fueled by a common passion. "A tornado is just air. But it's air that is amazingly organized into this vortex that has such power. You really just have to step back and have great respect for the ability of nature to do something like that."

The VORTEX2 project started on May 10th this year and continues to June 13th. To get the most data possible, the VORTEX2 scientists will venture back out into the field in search of more tornadoes in May 2010 for six more weeks.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Jon Baime, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.