Largest high-tech tornado chase ever set to spin

High-tech storm chasers

Next month, with the help of a variety of high-tech gear, researchers will begin a wide-ranging project to better understand the origin, structure and evolution of tornadoes with the ultimate goal of being able to better predict when the destructive storms will happen and get people out of harms way faster.

The National Science Foundation has given $9.1 million to the project known as Verification Of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment 2, or more simply, VORTEX2, which will take place from May 10-June 13.  Researchers say Vortex2 is the largest attempt in history to study tornadoes, and will involve more than 50 scientists and 40 research vehicles, including 10 mobile radars covering 900 square miles of ground in southern South Dakota, western Iowa, eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, the Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma.

A variety of high-tech applications will be part of the project including:

  • Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) will use a numerical computer model that, when seeded with one-hour of assimilated data (at 5-minute intervals) from National Weather Service and its own radar system that has successfully predicted, two hours ahead of time, at almost the exact time of an observed tornado near Minco, Oklahoma. The predicted location is only about 8 km from the observed tornado. The CASA radar network is a series of X-band radars mounted on cell phone towers.
  • The Center for Severe Weather Research will deploy its Radar Observations of Tornadoes And Thunderstorms Experiment that uses three Doppler On Wheels (DOW) mobile radars to observe the process of tornado formation, tornado structure, tornado lifecycle, and tornado death.  ROTATE uses what researchers call a Rapid-DOW system that sends 6-10 simultaneous beams to scan the sky every 10 seconds. The idea is to catch the very beginnings of tornado formation.
  • Other mobile networks, sensor networks and radar will also be used as well as unmanned aircraft. Researchers said that while unmanned aircraft technology is developing rapidly and has great potential, the use of those aircraft for meteorological purposes is still in its infancy, researchers stated. For VORTEX2, unmanned aircraft will be tethered to vehicles on the ground, researchers said.

VORTEX2 is a follow-on the ground-breaking research gathered from the initial VORTEX experiments in 1995.  Researchers said technological advances that have occurred since VORTEX1 (e.g., advances in ground-based mobile radar technology and improvements in our ability to obtain thermodynamic and microphysical observations) will let investigators explore aspects of tornadoes and their formation that they could not pursue in VORTEX. VORTEX2 will take full advantage of cutting-edge remote and in situ mobile and fixed observing systems, as well as data assimilation techniques that can improve analyses, researchers stated.

"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, NSF 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."

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