TORUS project expects “groundbreaking” results

After 32 days on the road, more than 9,000 miles, 19 supercell storms and at least eight tornadoes, researchers expect results from the Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells, or TORUS project, to be groundbreaking.

From May 15 to June 15, researchers and students on the project deployed a wide-ranging suite of instruments to collect data on supercell thunderstorms across the Great Plains. The project’s main goal is to determine why some supercells create tornadoes and others don’t.

TORUS brought a unique mix of instruments chosen for the science questions being studied.

A photo of researchers launching a weather balloon in front of a storm.
The windsonde team prepares for a balloon launch during a storm in Nebraska in late May. (Photo by Christiaan Patterson/OU CIMMS/NOAANSSL)

These included mobile Doppler radars and a lidar, mobile sounding systems including a new system that tracks up to eight soundings at once, the NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion “hurricane hunter” aircraft, mobile mesonets, and unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, to sample low-level conditions.

“I am more confident we will make scientific breakthroughs with this project than any other field project in my 16 years of field work,” said Mike Coniglio, a researcher at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory and a project lead.

Coniglio called gathering the amount of quality data in such a short time impressive.

“It’s not something I would expect we would be able to do, honestly,” he said. “I expected success but we exceeded our expectations.”

Researcher and project lead Erik Rasmussen echoed Coniglio’s sentiments on the project’s success.

“The atmosphere was cooperative,” said Rasmussen. “We have at least four or five cases that will provide the exact type of data we were looking for. Usually, storms are poorly observed, but in TORUS we have at least six storms we collected the sort of data we believe we need to answer our questions.”

Coniglio said TORUS’ success was not just because several tornadoes impacted on the Great Plains between May and June. 

“An active pattern doesn’t guarantee you will get good data,” Coniglio said. “You still have to make good forecasts. We had a better sense of how to forecast these events than we did in the past because convection-allowing model guidance has improved greatly.”

Coniglio said in addition to improved forecasting, the TORUS team’s weather instruments exceeded expectations. UASes launched by the University of Colorado and University of Nebraska-Lincoln performed well. Each UAS had a successful launch, never crashed and received minimal damage from storms.

Rasmussen said the challenge now is combing through the mounds of preliminary data. TORUS acquired more data than expected.

Researchers are currently assembling quality controlled data — basic, quickly compiled data — before in-depth analysis begins over the next four to six years. Rasmussen said preliminary data appears to be intact, with no missing sets, and no instruments appeared to fail in the field.

“When we collect data, we may realize we have something of interest, but we don’t know until

A researcher in a truck preparing equipment before a storm
OU CIMMS Researcher Elizabeth Smith preparing the LiDAR system for operation on the outskirts of a storm. Smith supports NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. (Photo by Mike Coniglio/NOAA NSSL)

the in-depth analysis,” Coniglio said, who oversaw the operation of a mobile LIght Detection And Ranging, or LiDAR, during the project.

A LiDAR utilizes laser light to detect items like small dust and aerosol particles. Coniglio’s LiDAR team collects observations utilizing the device to track how quickly all the dust, dirt and particles move in the atmosphere.

“The LiDAR saw interesting preliminary differences in airflow among storms and we don’t quite understand that signal yet or what it means, but it is something we will focus on,” he said.

TORUS will collect data again in 2020. Researchers expect to see overarching takeaways based on next year’s data collection.

“This year’s data will help us decide which strategies need to be refined, which tools performed well and if there are any crucial instruments that need to be added,” Rasmussen said.

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Laser light system among the armada of tools used in TORUS

Researcher Elizabeth Smith sits in the backseat of a white Chevy pick-up truck surrounded by computer equipment on a windy day in Oklahoma.

Smith works as a University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies researcher supporting NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. On this day she’s testing equipment after a recent deployment on TORUS, or Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells. The project aims at understanding the relationships between severe thunderstorms and tornado formation.

Researcher Elizabeth Smith preparing the LiDAR system for operation on the outskirts of a storm. (Photo by Mike Coniglio/NOAA NSSL)

In the back of the pick-up truck is a LiDAR system, which stands for LIght Detection And Ranging. Unlike radar systems, LiDAR utilizes laser light.

The LiDAR utilizes a 1.5-micron wavelength, just on the edge of visible light.

“The LiDAR fires out laser light to hit particles that are small enough for that specific wavelength,” Smith said. “Those are things you and I can’t easily see, like really, really small dust and aerosol particles.”

The LiDAR team collects observations utilizing the device to track how quickly all the dust, dirt and particles move in the atmosphere.

“If we know how fast those particles move, we can figure out how fast the wind blows,” Smith said. “Understanding the wind field around severe storms and weather is very important for us to improve our understanding and forecasts.”

The LiDAR is one of many instruments utilized in TORUS — a month long project funded by the National Science Foundation and NOAA. The LiDAR is funded by the NOAA NSSL Director’s Discretionary Research Fund to support TORUS.

TORUS includes many instruments, including those on top of trucks known as mobile mesonets, as well as mobile radar trucks and unmanned aircraft vehicles. Mobile mesonets measure atmospheric factors such as wind speed, temperature and humidity at the surface while radar measures storm factors at much higher levels. As a result there is often a gap in coverage, which may be up to several hundred feet above the surface.

“We use the LiDAR and weather balloons with instruments attached to fill that gap,” Smith said. “The LiDAR system is able to provide us with wind information in minutes. There’s a lot about the environment around storms and near storms we don’t understand yet. Understanding the complex flows in that region can be very important.”

Researchers launch weather balloons in May 2019 during TORUS. The LiDAR system team has the ability to launch weather balloons while in the field. TORUS is funded by the National Science Foundation with support from NOAA. (Photo by Mike Coniglio/NOAA NSSL)

Smith said two of the most vital factors the OU CIMMS and NOAA NSSL team are studying to improve forecasting tools are how supercell thunderstorms move and persist.

The team already captured several data sets to review after successful deployments in mid-May, including in Nebraska and Oklahoma.

“We saw interesting turbulence structure in the wind field,” Smith said. “We don’t know what that means just yet, but this is unprecedented  data because this specific LiDAR is faster than those used in past field projects.”

Smith said she doesn’t know what the data means, yet, but she does know it is interesting and poses more questions than answers until she can analyze it.

The LiDAR in the Chevy truck, lovingly named Louise, is from the NOAA NSSL CLAMPS-2 trailer utilized during the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast project during the past few years. The LiDAR was removed from the trailer for increased mobility in extreme environments.

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Scientists to launch new tornado research mission

Researchers are about to embark on a new research project aimed at understanding the relationships between severe thunderstorms and how tornadoes form across the Great Plains with the goal of improving forecasts.

The upcoming project, Targeted Observation by Radars and Unmanned Aircraft Systems of Supercells, or TORUS, will be discussed during a news conference followed by a public open house.

The TORUS project involves more than 50 researchers using 20 tools to measure the atmosphere, including unmanned aircraft systems, mobile radars and NOAA’s WP-3D Orion “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft. Fieldwork will be conducted May 15 to June 16 throughout a 367,000-square-mile area of the Central Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas and Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado.

Funded by NOAA and the National Science Foundation, the project is led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Partner institutions are the University of Colorado Boulder, Texas Tech University, NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, and the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies.

News conference, public open house, equipment tours

Tue., May 14

10 a.m.-11a.m: Media briefing followed by a question and answer session, interviews

11 a.m.-1 p.m.: Public Open House; Viewing of unmanned aircraft systems, mobile radars and other instruments; Tours of NOAA’s WP-3D Orion “Hurricane Hunter”

Salina Regional Airport, Hangar 600, 2720 Arnold Court, Salina, Kansas

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