Image: VORTEX 2 field command unit
NOAA / NSSL
A field command unit that was part of the VORTEX2 study that ended recently. Scientists studied the swirling storms across the Great Plains with a flotilla of instruments from May 1 to June 15, the most active part of the tornado season in the Great Plains.
By
OurAmazingPlanet
updated 7/21/2010 6:24:33 PM ET 2010-07-21T22:24:33

Storm-chasing scientists have wrapped up the most dangerous stage of the largest-ever study on why some storms become tornadoes and others don't.

While their mission didn't produce any "Aha!" moments, the storm hunters were able to study more than 20 tornadoes and gather more information on these storms than ever before, said team member Joshua Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo. The findings are leading to a greater understanding of tornadoes, and scientists expect they will ultimately improve tornado warnings and short-term severe weather forecasts (See the storm chasers at work).

Wurman, who has been collecting data on tornadoes for over a decade and has been featured in the television series "Storm Chasers," called the project a "tremendous success" and said he has "high confidence that we will get good results" from combing though the data. This analysis will take several years to complete, he said.

Their $11.9 million project is called VORTEX2.

The first VORTEX project (for "Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment") was conducted in 1994 and 1995. It gathered critical data on supercells, the severe and long-lived thunderstorms that give birth to the most destructive and deadly tornadoes. VORTEX findings were credited with improving National Weather Service tornado warnings.

In VORTEX2, scientists studied the swirling storms across the Great Plains with a flotilla of instruments. The mission ran from May 1 to June 15, the most active part of the tornado season in the Great Plains. Here, violent twisters are more common than any other place in the world and residents are constantly on the lookout for ominous clouds.

"We're studying something that's not just an academic curiosity. It will help people that live in fear of tornadoes," Wurman said.

Advance warning
One of the project's goals is to learn why storms give birth to some tornadoes that can knock only a few shingles off a roof and others that will blow off the entire roof. By learning the differences, scientists hope to give residents a heads-up when a deadly tornado is likely to form in their county — crucial information that often comes too late.

"Eventually we'd like to be able to give tornado warnings that are similar to hurricanes warnings with intensity, timing and where it's going to go. Residents know the category of a hurricane before it hits," Wurman told OurAmazingPlanet.

The average tornado warning is sounded 13 minutes before touchdown. Because the warnings don't provide much time, residents in the path of a tornado are advised against evacuating and urged to seek low-lying ground. If warning times could be improved to 40 minutes, Wurman said, residents could make better choices about the risk.

"If we could make the warnings more precise, maybe evacuations would be a smart thing to do," Wurman said.

Researchers took a step toward learning about violent twisters last spring, during the first phase of VORTEX2. They made key observations of a southeast Wyoming tornado that was rated EF2 on the Enhanced Fujita tornado damage scale, which goes from 0 (minor damage) to 5 (a storm that will completely destroy a house).

The tornado trackers captured numerous other tornadoes and supercell thunderstorms in Colorado and other states across the Plains. They didn't find any massive storms but said the number of storms observed made up for that. The researchers also gathered data on more than 30 non-tornadic storms for comparison.

Chasing storms
More than 100 scientists from a number of organizations, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., deployed an unprecedented fleet of mobile radars and other cutting-edge tools to chase down tornadoes across an area spanning more than 900 miles from West Texas to southwestern Minnesota.

From the early-morning forecast to the deployment of the instruments, "the whole day is tense," Wurman said.

On each day of operations, VORTEX2 teams positioned equipment about an hour ahead of a potentially tornadic storm. If a storm transformed into a tornado, then things got dicey.

Six vehicles had 45 seconds to drive into the storm, drop data-gathering "tornado pods" and get out of the tornado's path. The timing was critical, and panic was the enemy. Drop the pods too soon and the storm might die out before reaching the instruments. Drop them too late and face 100 mph winds and softball-size hail that can smash windshields.

The work was dangerous, but Wurman touted the project's perfect safety record. If conditions became too severe, the team would call off a chase. On one of the project's last days, a storm in Texas unleashed heavy rains, dangerous floods, high winds and dust clouds, prompting the team to pull back.

With no home base, however, the scientists retreated to their makeshift headquarters — roadside inns. The team remained on the road during the entire six-week study.

"We're sleeping in motels on the highway, eating fast-food dinners," Wurman said. "We're living completely nomadically. We don't know until 6 p.m. where we're going to stay the night — all for the intermittent and rare moments of satisfaction."

Instrument arsenal
Supercell storms can spawn tornadoes within minutes. But this happens in only a small fraction of supercell storms, and standard observing networks and radars often fail to capture the atmospheric conditions that lead to a tornado.

The VORTEX2 program, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had an arsenal of measurement tools at its disposal.

The radar fleet included 10 mobile radars that tracked winds and precipitation. The instruments had a resolution as fine as 100 feet and time steps as short as 10 seconds. More than 36 portable surface weather stations blanketed areas in and near target storms. A robotic 12-foot propeller aircraft probed the edges of severe storms.

The scientists hope these instruments gathered the key information needed to unravel how tornadoes form. For the VORTEX2 storm chasers, solving this mystery is what the chase is all about.

"When I see something for the first time, that moment of discovery is really a thrill for me," Wurman told OurAmazingPlanet. "I don't get adrenaline from chasing the storms but from seeing something that's never been seen before."

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Photos: VORTEX2: The great tornado chase

loading photos...
  1. VORTEX2 scientist Karen Koshiba watches storms develop inside the Doppler On Wheels 7 radar in New Cordell, Okla., on May 10, 2010. From this mobile workstation, DOW 7 controls its radar aquisition, monitors developing storms and communicates with the rest of the Vortex 2 fleet.

    See more photos from the field. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. VORTEX2 Scientists Shawn McQuinn, center, and Tim Marshall, right, place a tornado pod near Oberlin, Kan., while Japanese Public Television station NUUK crews film on May 6, 2010. Tornado Pods measure winds, temperature, and relative humidity, and collect dual video inside tornadoes. The data logger is in an armored waterproof aircraft- style "black box" designed to survive even if the Tornado Pod is destroyed. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A toppled truck rests on debris near badly-damaged homes after a tornado just east of the airport in Seminole, Okla., on Monday, May 10, 2010. VORTEX2 was in the area of the destruction. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Vortex 2 team member Tim Marshall points to an inbound supercell while awaiting orders to deploy tornado probes on Highway 182 south of Woodward, Okla., on May 11, 2010. Tim's mission is to deploy weather instrumentation in the path of a tornado. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Dennis Sherrod prepares to climb aboard as VORTEX2 Lead Scientist Josh Wurman and other scientists collect radar data from a supercell thunderstorm south of Seminole, Okla., on May 10, 2010. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. VORTEX2 Scientists Josh Wurman and Karen Koshiba, right, display a tornado pod to a camera crew filming "Storm Chasers" for the Discovery Channel in Hays, Kan., on May 6, 2010.

    See more photos from the field. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. VORTEX2 scientists Lou Wicker, from left, Josh Wurman Conrad Ziegler and Don Burgess, plan their day at the American Inn & Suites in Perry, Okla., on May 10, 2010. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A Doppler On Wheels (DOW) radar scans a supercell thunderstorm in southeastern Wyoming on June 5, 2009. This storm made a strong, long-track tornado that was observed by VORTEX2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2). To date, it is the most comprehensively-observed tornado ever.

    See more photos from the field. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Doppler On Wheels 7 radar scans a supercell thunderstorm on June of 2009. The 56-foot high mast houses weather instruments and powerful VHF radios that enable this mission control radar to coordinate 10 other radars in the VORTEX2 fleet and communicate with other scientists. A photogrammetry team stands outside the DOW, documenting the storm visually. (Herb Stein) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Tim Marshall and Dr. Lindsay Bennet deploy a Tornado Pod in front of a strong, long-track tornado in Wyoming on June 5, 2009. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A convoy of Mobile Mesonets travels down the road in pursuit of a tornadic supercell thunderstorm in Wyoming on June 5, 2009. These vehicles contain weather instruments that measure temperature, humidity, wind and pressure surrounding the tornado, helping scientists understand how and why the tornado formed. Some of the Mobile Mesonets also carry Tornado Pods. (Ryan McGinnis / bigstormpicture.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Shown here in its mature stage, the most-studied tornado in history moves across the horizon in Southeastern Wyoming on June 5, 2009. Dozens of VORTEX2 vehicles gathered data using radar, weather instruments and tornado pods.

    Follow msnbc_pictures on twitter. (Rachel Humphrey) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A VORTEX2 crew deploys a tornado pod in front of a thunderstorm that did not produce a tornado on May 12, 2009. Scientists are collecting data in storms that both do and don't produce tornadoes so that they can better understand why the differences occur. (Gino DeGrandis) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The most-studied tornado in history enters a late, roping stage over Southeastern Wyoming on June 5, 2009. Scientists' research concludes on June 15, 2010.

    Get updates on VORTEX2. (Matt Ryzdik) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A Mobile Mesonet and Tornado Pod deployment vehicle gathers data from an approaching tornado in Southeast Wyoming on June 5, 2009. The instruments mounted well above the roof are collecting temperature, humidity and wind data. (Paul Robinson) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Video: Real-life 'Twister': Scientists track Midwest tornadoes

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments