Storm chases scientists on a mission to solve the sky’s biggest mystery

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In the United States, nothing captivates or terrifies as much as a tornado.
Mythologized by Hollywood movies and increasingly through social media, funnel-shaped “twisters” have helped spawn several generations of meteorologists and storm chasers.
But this natural phenomenon remains a mystery that scientists have yet to fully explain.

Although tornadoes are known to develop from a specific type of thunderstorm, called a supercell storm, the exact triggers of a tornado are still not fully understood.

Research scientist Sean Waugh walks the TORUS team through how to use windsounds.

Now, a group of tornado-hunting scientists are on a mission to unlock the secrets of the sky’s greatest riddle – getting up close and personal with the storms that produce them.

“What we’re hoping to do is understand the supercell (storm) better, understand this cascade of processes that lead to the genesis of tornadoes, and then take that understanding and incorporate it into the forecasting process,” Dr Adam said. Houston, one of the project leaders. lead investigators, says SBS Deadline.
“Right now, we may have a sequence of supercells lined up in a particular area, and we don’t know which of these is going to go tornadic.”

“What we want to know is, 30 minutes ahead or an hour ahead, which of these storms is going to turn tornado because that’s the lead time people need to get up to speed. shelter.”

Over a thousand tornadoes occur each year in the United States, causing over $1 billion in damage. Thus, the US government has invested heavily in the team’s research.
The project is made up of more than 50 meteorological researchers working at the forefront of tornado climatology, including teams from the National Severe Storms Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meteorologists from several universities and their students.
In tow is a state-of-the-art fleet of over 20 vehicles – including mobile radars, a P3 aircraft called Hurricane Hunter and eight mobile weather stations called mesonets.

Together, the team must spend a month chasing the storm across the Great Central Plains of the United States. It’s an area that spans nearly a million square miles, and they can travel anywhere from North Dakota to Texas, and Wyoming to Iowa, sometimes crossing multiple states in a single day. .

A young man stands in the front of a car.

A member of the TORUS team on assignment.

Once on a thunderstorm, the TORUS team (TORUS stands for Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS – Unmanned Aerial Systems – of Supercells) must then get as close to it as possible.

They must all work together in a tightly choreographed dance in deadly conditions, to capture data from multiple points in the storm – things like wind speeds, atmospheric pressure and temperatures, as well as to get radar observations. .
“So [the teams] kind of move around and they work on each other, so they can use their information together to form a kind of cohesive picture of what the storm environment is doing and how it changes as we continue to operate on the storm,” says Sean Waugh, one of the team’s researchers, who has been studying tornadoes for 12 years.

“So the radar track, for example, will stay a little further. This gives us a larger scale picture of what is happening. But the [mesonets]their job is to get a little closer and, you know, more personal with the storm.

A tornado seen from inside a car.

The TORUS team in action monitoring a tornadic supercell storm.

Driving a moving mesonet, it’s his job to measure the area right next to where a tornado is forming.

“We are definitely and personally getting closer to things. Often this means going in and out of the core of hail, lots of heavy rain. So you have to stay on top of the roads, the traffic, you know, the weather, that sort of thing. It is a very complex moving image and it is my job to ensure the safety of the vehicle as well as that of the occupants.
What makes the work of the TORUS team even more difficult is that the behavior of tornadoes in the United States is changing.

March to June each year is usually tornado season. They most often occur in the central plains states, giving it the nickname Tornado Alley, and most often between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.

What we want to know, 30 minutes in advance or an hour in advance, which of these storms is going to turn tornado because that’s the lead time people need to take shelter.

Dr Adam Houston

But in recent years, the intensity and locations of tornadoes have become increasingly unusual and difficult to predict.
“The biggest thing we’ve seen is an increase in the variability of occurrence,” says Dr. Harold Brooks, senior scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, in Norman, Oklahoma.
“The number of days with 30 or more (tornadoes) has gone from one day every two years to about two and a half to three days a year.”

According to Dr. Brooks, there has also been an increase of about 10% in the number of tornadoes occurring east of the Central Plains, in more densely populated areas, such as the state of Kentucky.

A gas station with a storm cloud brewing above.

Tornadoes most often occur in the central plains states, giving it the nickname Tornado Alley.

“The main reason we care about the increase in the southeastern United States is that it has to do with population,” he says.

“The population density, especially in the rural areas of the Southeast, is much higher than in the Great Plains.
“As a result you put a tornado in the southeast it’s almost guaranteed to hit houses and touch people, whereas in the plains you can have a tornado on the ground for a long time and it just doesn’t touch anyone. at all .”
In December of last year, the town of Mayfield, Kentucky was decimated by an EF4 tornado nearly a mile wide.
He remained on the ground for more than 300 kilometers. Crossing five states, it destroyed more than 15,000 buildings and claimed 88 lives, more than the average annual death toll in a single day.

The strength, path and duration of the tornado that struck Mayfield were all unusual. Even more unusual, it happened at night, in the middle of winter.

An aerial image of the town of Mayfield showing the destruction of homes and buildings.

The town of Mayfield in Kentucky was destroyed by a tornado in December 2021.

Although the exact role of climate change in this behavior is not yet known, it is the devastation left by tornadoes like the one that hit Mayfield that helps fuel the work of the TORUS team.

Currently, the average warning time of a tornado is only 9 to 15 minutes.
By revealing the hidden composition of a severe storm and potentially the triggers of tornadoes, the TORUS team hopes to improve tornado predictions and ultimately save lives.
Dr Adam Houston says it will take a multi-faceted approach.

“You have to attack it from a better understanding. You must attack it from better observations. You have to attack it from a better numerical weather forecast and all of these things fit into that larger process of forecasting to try to improve that lead time.

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