The Tulsa World, James Gibbard/AP

VORTEX2 Study Attempting to Improve Tornado Prediction

May 12, 2009 05:00 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Hoping to increase the amount of warning given for tornadoes, researchers will spend five weeks in the Great Plains studying the storms.

VORTEX2 Project to Track Tornadoes

Tornadoes have frustrated scientists for some time because of their rather unpredictable nature, but dozens of researchers set out recently to examine this weather phenomenon in earnest.

For five weeks, participants in the VORTEX2 project will track tornadoes, hoping ultimately to increase the current warning time for these storms from 13 minutes, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. They’re also aiming to improve the accuracy of such warnings, which are false alarms 75 percent of the time, Discover Magazine reported.

“The fact that we still are unable to accurately warn on the timing and location and intensity of tornadoes reaching the ground is a frustration to the scientists,” Brad Smull, an associate program director at the national Science Foundation, told the Star Tribune, adding that the public is also frustrated. “So in our belief, it merits some special attention.”

It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that researchers began learning more about the structure and speed of a tornado, which is the minimum that scientists must know to improve their prediction abilities, Discover wrote.

Tornadoes are tricky because they can form and disappear so quickly, and are deadly. Finding the right equipment to study them has been difficult. A Doppler on Wheels, radar equipment mounted to a truck, has been especially helpful in giving researchers more information about the storms.
VORTEX2, the largest tornado researcher project in history, is an international effort, with agencies from Canada, Finland and Australia joining in as well. The project includes 14 Doppler on Wheels vehicles which will roam the Great Plains states, collecting data.

“We don't know in the morning where we're going to be staying at night. Hopefully we'll know where all the Laundromats are,” Roger Wakimoto, one of the study’s lead investigators, told the Star Tribune.

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Background: The original VORTEX

VORTEX2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes) is a continuation of the first VORTEX program conducted during 1994 and 1995. The last study “documented the entire life cycle of a tornado for the first time in history,” the National Science Foundation stated.

Historical Context: Past tornado attitudes

The deadliest tornado in U.S. history struck Missouri, Illinois and Indiana in March 1925, destroying 15,000 homes and claiming almost 700 lives. “With a mile-wide diameter it looked wider than it was tall,” writes Popular Mechanics.

Popular Mechanics notes that forecasters hardly dealt with tornadoes at the time because predicting them was believed to be too unpredictable. Reporting on them, some felt, would cause too much public panic. “Forecasters weren’t allowed to study tornadoes, or even acknowledge their existence in public.” The tri-state tornado began changing that mentality.

Related Topic: Tornado safety

During the 2008 tornado season, several victims who died in tornadoes in the Midwest were killed in their cars. Enduring a tornado in a car can be particularly dangerous. One highway patrol officer was quoted as saying the impact of a tornado on a vehicle is similar to “taking a handful of Matchbox cars and rolling them across the kitchen floor.”

Reference: Tornadoes and hurricanes


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