April 7, 2009

History’s Largest Tornado Project To Begin In May

Although most people view tornadoes as something to avoid, next month a small army of scientists will be doing just the opposite, traveling the nation's central region in search of twisters.

Organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the ambitious initiative to explore the origin, structure and evolution of tornadoes will take place from May 10-June 13, 2009.

The project, known as VORTEX2 (V2), will be the biggest attempt in history to study tornadoes, and will involve more than 50 scientists and 40 research vehicles, including 10 mobile radars.

Verification Of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment 2 (VORTEX2) includes scientists from NOAA, 10 universities and three non-profit organizations.

The researchers will sample the super-cell thunderstorms that often form over more than 900 miles of the central Great Plains.

Areas of particular focus will include eastern Colorado, southern South Dakota, western Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, the Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma.

"An important finding from the original VORTEX experiment was that tornadoes happen on smaller time and space scales than scientists had thought," said Stephan Nelson, the NSF's program director for physical and dynamic meteorology.

"New advances from VORTEX2 will allow for a more detailed sampling of a storm's wind, temperature and moisture environment, and lead to a better understanding of why tornadoes form--and how they can be more accurately predicted."

NSF has contributed $9.1 million in funding for the VORTEX2 project.

The original VORTEX program, which operated in the central Great Plains from 1994 to 1995, chronicled the entire life cycle of a tornado for the first time in history.

Recent improvements in severe weather warning statistics may be due in part to the application of VORTEX findings.  V2 will continue the progress made during VORTEX and will further improve tornado warning skills and short-term severe weather forecasts.

Data collected from VORTEX2 will also help researchers understand how the large-scale environment of thunderstorms relates to tornado formation, said meteorologist Louis Wicker of NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory and a V2 co-principal investigator.

Scientists and students participating in V2 represent a number of organizations throughout the United States and three other countries.   These include the Center for Severe Weather Research, Rasmussen Systems, NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, OU/NOAA Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, NSF-sponsored National Centers for Atmospheric Research, Penn State University, University of Oklahoma, Texas Tech University, Lyndon State College, University of Colorado, Purdue University, North Carolina State University, University of Illinois, University of Massachusetts, University of Nebraska, and Environment Canada and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.


Image 1: The 1973 Union City, Oklahoma tornado, shown here, was the first tornado captured by the National Severe Storms Laboratory Doppler radar and chase personnel. This tornado is in its early stage of formation. Credit: NOAA

Image 2: Atmospheric scientists soon will conduct the most ambitious tornado field project in history. Credit: NOAA

Image 3: Today scientists use such instruments as the Doppler-on-Wheels to study tornadoes. Credit: Josh Wurman, CSWR


On the Net: