The Science and Mysteries of Tornadoes

DSC00763 A pair of speakers Friday morning at the Severe Storms and Doppler Radar Conference in Des Moines presenting some interesting information on tornadoes, the discoveries and ongoing mysteries that surround them.

First off, the key to understanding tornadoes lies in the hands of storm chasers.  Much of the mystery surrounding tornadoes comes from the limited amount of data from near or inside a vortex.  For example, there are 16 confirmed events of recorded weather data in or near a tornado.  Those 16 events span over 115 years!

Most of those recordings were made by accident.  But in recent years, storms chasers using the latest and greatest in technology are beginning to turn the tide in their favor.  One chaser at the forefront is Tim Samaras, who developed a pair of special probes designed to survive a tornado’s winds.

As I blogged earlier, Samaras is hoping to expand his arsenal with new probes in order to better understand the life cycle of tornadoes.

vortex logo Beyond Samaras’ work, there is a major government funded operation now in its second year, call VORTEX-2.  The first project VORTEX occurred in the 90’s.  Since that time radar and weather technology has greatly improved, giving storm chasers a greater chance at looking inside a tornado.

With a weak year for tornadoes in 2009, the VORTEX team did not capture a lot of touchdowns.  But that doesn’t mean they didn’t score a lot of data.  Although work on the data continues, the team is getting closer to understanding the dynamics in a storm that take horizontal rotation and bring it to the surface in the shape of a tornado.  More importantly, the team is unraveling some questions as to why some supercells form tornadoes and others don’t.

DSC00765 That’s especially interesting to a storm chaser like myself because VORTEX’s data is beginning to show us why perfect looking storm set ups often times turn into a bust.  Their findings are not confirmed, but some interesting theories are coming to light.

Of course the research will never end, VORTEX-2 will resume its chasing operations in about a month and continue through June.  The team hopes for a more active year.  But don’t expect to see them in Iowa.  If the weather warrants, the team will travel to the Hawkeye State, but because our terrain is not as flat or empty as areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, data collected on storms in Iowa often isn’t as accurate.

Later today we’ll hear from the Storm Prediction Center and other speakers as we go over the latest theories surrounding severe weather and tornadoes.

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