Chasing the Whirlwind

May 22, 2009

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NC State researchers will spend part of their summer finding out what makes tornadoes tick.

Dr. Matthew Parker, associate professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences, and a team of NC State graduate students will be in Tornado Alley from May 10 to June 13 as part of the VORTEX2 project – the largest and most ambitious effort ever made to understand tornadoes.

Throughout their experience, members of the NC State crew are blogging about their research, efforts and experiences online. Their work has also caught the eye of The Weather Channel staffers, who posted a video about the team’s soundings on their Web site earlier this month.

“We hope that the blog will give the public a glimpse into what this type of research entails day-to-day,” Parker said.

More than 100 scientists and crews from several U.S. universities and weather research programs, and up to 40 science and support vehicles will participate in this unique, fully nomadic, field program.

The scientists will roam from state to state following severe weather outbreaks through the plains, and the fleet will use an array of instrumentation to literally surround the tornadoes and the supercell thunderstorms that form them.

“It’s exciting to have so many instruments making measurements together,” Parker said. “We expect this to lead to a great leap forward in our understanding of tornadoes and our ability to protect people from them.”

Parker’s team will form a four-vehicle portion of the caravan. The NC State researchers will launch weather balloons near tornadic thunderstorms in order to measure the vertical profiles of temperature, humidity and winds in the atmosphere.

VORTEX2 – which stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment – is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. The original VORTEX project ran from 1994 to 1995 and documented the life cycle of a tornado for the first time.