A big research project spanning the entirety of the plains has one goal in mind, better tornado prediction. What may not be obvious is that one of the biggest challenges in forecasting tornadoes is to avoid false alarms. In other words, we need to know why certain storms don’t produce tornadoes.
“Although most, or all, of violent tornadoes occur in supercell storms, the flip side was that relatively few supercells produce tornadoes,” said lead scientist of the TORUS project, Conrad Zeigler. “So that actually has been an ongoing mystery that we are trying to unravel.”
The fleet of the TORUS project is comprised of a wide range of research tools: the aircraft normally used over the gulf by the air force known best as the hurricane hunters, vehicle-launched unmanned aircraft to take weather measurements off the surface, truck-mounted doppler radar domes, and a fleet of vehicles equipped with data sensors. They each bring an unique element to the team.
“We’re heading up the mobile doppler radar mission here for TORUS, so you can see one of the radars behind me here. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to profile the wind structure in these supercell thunderstorms,” said Christopher Weiss of Texas Tech University.
“So we’re going to take these radars pretty close to the developing tornadoes, maybe a mile to five miles out, something like that, scanning the storm in the horizontal and vertical and trying to understand how the boundaries produced by the storm are affecting the development of the tornaodes.”
With so many moving parts, coordination is key.
“Everybody heads out. The ground teams head out to that area, the aircraft sets a takeoff time for that day’s operations. Of course we can fly very fast so we can get to the target area. The biggest challenge for our project is to get the ground teams and the aircraft together working the same area and the same storms. So to do that, we have to get them out first then we know the area is where we’ll be flying,” said Zeigler.
With the data collected from the ground teams and the slices of radar data obtained by the aircraft, we hope to learn more about tornadoes and their development that ever before.
KSNT News was the first media outlet in the country allowed to ride along with the hurricane hunters flights to the heart of the storms, where we get you a front row seat at what researchers are doing with this project.
Stationed in salina during this project, the hurricane hunters are a branch of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. A briefing took place midday on Friday, and then it was time to head out. KSNT Storm Track Chief Meteorologist Matt Miller made his way to the plane along with the numerous researchers that filled the fuselage of the P-3 aircraft.
A smooth takeoff, and the flight was heading west to Nebraska to the targeted city of McCook. Upon arrival, there was extra time before the storms moved into that area, so the plane deaded north to sample some storms and do some pratice runs around thunderstorms that fired up early in the northern part of Nebraska.
Shortly later, the ground crews in McCook and the hurricane hunters had pinpointed the day’s target storm. It had developed near Goodland, Kansas, and was heading straight toward McCook.
With ground crews sampling the storm from below, the hurricane hunters job was to gather as many close-range radar sweeps of the storm as they could.
Three on-aircraft radar sources were used to not only keep the plane close, but at a safe distance from the storms. It was also essential to record the evolution of the supercell from the time it moved into the plane’s airspace throughout it’s life cycle.
As the pilots worked to keep the aircraft as smooth as possible, and to make tight turns to keep the storm in radar range as the plane passed back and forth, the storm ramped up in intensity and began to produce a tornado.
While difficult to see from our height at times, there were glimpses of the tornado on the ground while it was just outside McCook. Clouds started lowering and obscured the view, but several more radar scans helped to gather what we were really there to do.