The world's biggest tornado hunt is stuck. I'm at an improvised command center in the conference room of the Holiday Inn Express in Perry, Oklahoma, and 35 scientists are trying to decide where, on this cloudy May morning, to deploy the 50 equipment-laden trucks parked outside. The first major storm system of the expedition is forming southwest of us, in Texas, and it's likely to lead to supercells, massive rotating thunderstorms that may in turn spin off one or more twisters. Very promising. But Lou Wicker, a team leader from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, sees a problem. He looks up from a radar screen. "Fifty miles per hour," he says. Too fast.
The popular image of the tornado hunt is of a few trucks speeding across the plains, dirt flying, in pursuit of monster funnels, but Wicker's project, the second Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, known as VORTEX2, calls for a very different kind of chase. The goal of the two-year, $12-million government field experiment is not simply to get close to a tornado, but to surround it and capture enough data to accurately re-create it in a computer model. With an armada of trucks and vans, 140 crew members and several tons of gear—from 40-foot-tall portable radio masts to weather balloons to an unmanned aerial vehicle—success requires far more than just daredevil driving. It requires a great deal of methodical planning, which in turn requires a great deal of advance information. "It's tough to do even on days with slow storms," says Josh Wurman, a team leader from the Center for Severe Weather Research. "It's bordering on impossible on a day like today."
In trying to improve the situation, the VORTEX2 team is faced with a chicken-and-egg quandary: Intercepting more tornadoes requires better prediction models, but better prediction models require intercepting more tornadoes. When VORTEX2 completed last year's hunt, the team had managed to surround only one twister, in LaGrange, Wyoming. It was a major catch but, as Wurman says, "one tornado is not enough."
Wicker puts his finger on a map. "Here," he says, pointing to the predicted center of storm activity, a spot about 40 miles to the east. Because most tornadoes lumber along at about 15 mph, the typical chase strategy is to drive alongside them and deploy sensors and instruments to collect data on the fly. But a fast-moving storm calls for much different maneuvering. The team members must spread out quickly, Wicker explains, get ahead of the storm, and set up a perimeter of instruments capable of measuring whatever happens within an area of about 1,000 square miles and then wait for a tornado to spin through it. Still, he cautions, even with several hours' preparation and a large footprint, surrounding a moving disaster area will not be easy. "It's difficult to chase 50-mile-per-hour storms when you're by yourself, let alone with 50 vehicles," he says. "With this many people, it's like trying to run errands with a car full of kids who all have to take bathroom breaks at different times."
At the moment, better drivers would help too. A technician interrupts the meeting to announce that there's been an accident, and Wurman heads to the parking lot to assess the damage. In all of the preparatory rush, one of the fleet's 10 Doppler-radar trucks has backed into another, damaging the connection between the radars and the internal computers, an essential part of both trucks. Repairs could take hours.
Wurman looks at the trucks and shakes his head. "We've duct-taped a lot of broken parts on my trucks in the past 10 years," he says, "but this is just about the worst possible scenario."
The VORTEX project is the world's most ambitious effort to understand tornadoes. When the National Severe Storms Laboratory conducted the original VORTEX field experiments in 1994 and 1995, Wicker and Wurman, along with meteorologists Harold Brooks and Don Burgess, became the first scientists to surround a tornado with radar trucks. With their "Doppler on wheels," they were able to capture rare ground-level views of tornadoes and document for the first time a twister's entire life cycle.
But fundamental questions remain. For example, why do funnels form in the first place, and what makes some tornadoes strong while others are barely a wisp? What fuels them? By understanding the basic mechanics of twisters, Wicker and his team are looking to improve tornado-warning times from 13 minutes to 50 and, ultimately, mitigate property damage and save lives.
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Ok, ON TOPIC: While I agree that our tornado warning time needs improvement, I'd like to remind that there are factors to be considered that fall in with the article's scenarios about the areas of effect covered by warnings. In an area like Chicago, where land is flat, the local concern with 'lake effect' factors are typically the only things that would possibly dictate a greater or lesser area being warned. Go 150 miles from there to Dubuque, Iowa, and you find an area that gets tornado conditions every year. There will be warnings issued for tornadoes in Dubuque even though the citizens know that tornadoes can't get down into the horseshoe shaped depression where the downtown area of the city is. Now this is an area that can benefit from some applied logic that right now either gets lucky, or doesn't. We all understand that specific areas of risk, like schools, are better served by always being included in a warning. But what about those areas 'up on the flat' above a town like Dubuque whose emergency services don't get bolstered up where the real risk is-because of the schools and other services that are ALWAYS included in the warnings for the tornadoes they will never see? People are dying in these judgment calls. 'Better safe than sorry' is killing them.