Matt Parker launches a balloon in the vicinity of a target supercell in Colorado.

Chasing the Whirlwind

June 7, 2011

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Tornado Alley isn’t just in Kansas anymore, Toto. With destructive tornadoes blistering locales like Joplin, Mo., Tuscaloosa, Ala. as well as sites traditionally inhospitable to tornadoes – like Raleigh, Minneapolis, Minn. and Springfield, Mass. – figuring out more about how and why tornadoes form becomes more relevant – and critical to saving lives.

Dr. Matt Parker spent the last two summers chasing storms with the largest tornado research project ever undertaken. Now he’s back at NC State, and working hard to find out just what makes tornadoes tick.

“Forecasters are really interested in improving lead time on tornado warnings, as well as accuracy,” Parker says. “We issue a lot more warnings than there are tornadoes, and some have speculated that this could lead to people being aware of the warnings but not taking appropriate action – a ‘cry wolf’ syndrome. And that could put lives at risk.”

Open video in YouTube | Transcript [doc] | Video from NC State YouTube

Parker, a professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences, was part of a crew composed of more than 100 scientists from 13 U.S. universities and agencies, who spent the tornado seasons of 2009 and 2010 riding in a caravan of scientific equipment all over Tornado Alley. The project, titled VORTEX 2 (which stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment), was the second phase of an experiment funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The original VORTEX project, which ran from 1994 to 1995, was the first to document  many of the details associated with tornado formation.

Parker’s team was responsible for recording data from the edges of the storms, using weather balloons with data recording equipment attached that measured temperature, humidity, winds and air pressure to see how environmental conditions varied near each storm. Other teams were responsible for gathering data on different aspects of the storms from different positions.  When everything was said and done, the VORTEX 2 project had data on 50 different storms – some that spawned tornadoes and others that did not.

After the data collection phase, the teams sat down to decide who would take the lead on analyzing each storm, or case. “We had something like a draft,” Parker says. “Everyone came in with their top five, and we made trades. Each of the teams now has data from between four to six storms, and they’re responsible for creating a complete picture of each of those storms.”

Parker estimates that sifting through the data will take up to five years, after which scientists can start comparing the different cases to find out what  differentiates tornadic storms from all the others. Their aim is to find out which storms are most likely to spawn tornadoes, improving forecasting and ultimately, saving lives.

VORTEX 2 Project Photo Gallery

Photo Gallery

NC State students perform a demonstration balloon launch for a media day. The team’s first day in the field in May 2009 (in Clinton, OK). The team’s first day of practice in April 2010 (in Norman, OK) A field of mammatus billows beneath a thunderstorm’s anvil in Texas. Kate Rojowsky, left, and David Stark fill a balloon prior to launch in Nebraska. Students conference while troubleshooting an instrument. The sun sets behind a thunderstorm in the Texas Panhandle in June of 2010. Nate Hardin, left, Johannes Dahl, center, and Graylen Boone, right, fill a balloon in western Nebraska. Nate Hardin prepares to release a balloon into the inflow of a storm in Nebraska. Sparse road networks often caused the team operate on rural roads and in open range land. Matt Morin, left, and Kate Rojowsky attach a sonde to a balloon in preparation for launch. Matt Parker launches a balloon in the vicinity of a target supercell in Colorado. Between balloon launches, Matt Parker observes the dissipation of a tornado in Nebraska. A shelf cloud and the flared base of a “high precipitation” supercell in Nebraska. Matt Parker photographed in the inflow region of a supercell thunderstorm in Nebraska.