Monster tornado chaser armada set to rumble

VORTEX2 project aims to chase, study tornadoes

tornada from vortex2 Mike Coniglio, NSSL
A small army of 100 scientists and 40 sophisticated vehicles and unmanned aircraft are set to storm the Midwest chasing tornadoes looking to get a better understanding of the dangerous storms and help forecasters predict the destructive events.

 The VORTEX2 armada - sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- will be spending its second tornado season traversing South Dakota, Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma looking to help scientists better understand the origin, structure and evolution of tornadoes. The project, VORTEX2--Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes-will run May 1st through June 15th, 2010. 

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This summer the armada will include: 

  • Ten mobile radars such as the Doppler-on-Wheels from the Center for Severe Weather Research
  • SMART-Radars from the University of Oklahoma;
  • the NOXP radar from the National Severe Storms Laboratory
  • radars from the University of Massachusetts, the Office of Naval Research and Texas Tech University;
  • 12 mobile mesonet instrumented vehicles
  • 38 deployable instruments
  • Tornado-Pods
  • 4 high-tech rain gauges known as disdrometers
  • weather balloon launching vans  

The group will also fly unmanned aircraft from the University of Colorado. According to the university, the propeller-driven aircraft -- which weighs 12 pounds and has a 10-foot wingspan -- has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to be deployed onto the edges of severe, supercell storms during the 2010 VORTEX2 season. 

The UAS has FAA clearance to altitudes up to 1,000 feet and are projected for launch in eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. "The objective of the team is to develop and demonstrate an inexpensive, small UAS that combines meteorological radar data with the UAS command, communications and tracking data to safely navigate the unmanned aircraft below the clouds of developing supercell storms to collect meteorological data," said team leader and aerospace engineering sciences Professor Brian Argrow.

Scientists from more than a dozen universities and government and private organizations will take part. International participants are from Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Australia are also expected. 

Last summer the VORTEX2 group traveled more than 10,000 miles across the southern and central Plains from May 10-June 13, 2009.  Data were collected on 11 supercells, including one tornadic supercell.  That supercell made history as the first group to deploy all of its instruments on a single tornadic supercell.  Detailed data were collected from 20 minutes before the tornado formed until it faded away.  This tornado is now the most intensely examined tornado in history, according to the Vortex Website

The two-year VORTEX2  project is a follow-on the ground-breaking research gathered from the initial VORTEX experiments in 1995.  Researchers said technological advances that have occurred since VORTEX (such as 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. 

"Current warnings have only a 13-minute average lead time, and a 70 percent false alarm rate," says Brad Smull, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. "Can we issue reliable warnings as much as 30, 45 or even 60 minutes ahead of tornado touchdown?" 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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