Spring 2009 brought scientists at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory back to the field for the largest tornado research project in history. With support from NOAA and the National Science Foundation, more than 100 scientists, students, and staff sought to collect data that would provide better understanding of tornado intensity, longevity, and behavior. The team deployed 10 mobile radars and 40 additional vehicles with custom instrumentation for data acquisition.
NSSL’s Lou Wicker was one of six principal investigators on the project, which included Chris Weiss from Texas Tech, Joshua Wurman from the Center for Severe Weather Research, Yvette Richardson from Penn State, David Dowell from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Howard Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma.
Between May 10 and June 13, 2009, researchers traveled more than 10,000 miles across the central and southern plains. A number of storms were analyzed, including one supercell that spawned a tornado. On June 5, researchers were able to deploy all of their mobile research equipment in a tornadic supercell in LaGrange, Wyoming. They collected data on the tornado from 20 minutes before formation until dissipation. This remains the best-sampled storm on record.
During the second year of VORTEX2, vehicles logged more than 25,000 miles each. Scientists sampled 36 supercells and 11 tornadoes. The field project resulted in numerous studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
Researchers presented preliminary results from the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2009-2010 (VORTEX2) during a special session at the American Meteorological Society Severe Local Storms Conference held in Denver, Colo. in October.
The data collection phase for the historic VORTEX2 project wrapped up operations on June 15, 2010 in New Mexico. About 40 instrumented vehicles each logged more than 25,000 miles across the Great Plains in search of supercell thunderstorms. The mission of VORTEX2 was to collect data that will help explain how, when, where and why tornadoes form, or why sometimes they don’t. The project was designed to observe all the scales of motion from the thunderstorm down to the tornado.
VORTEX2 teams logged 36 consecutive days in the field in 2009 and 46 in 2010. Researchers have selected 20 of the best data collection days for more detailed study.
The NSSL/Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorology (CIMMS) team operating the NOAA X-Pol (NOXP) dual-polarized radar reported 81 deployments over the two-year period. The team captured data on 11 tornadoes as they formed, and 14 tornadoes during some part of their life cycle. In all, approximately 36 supercell thunderstorms were sampled; 24 did not produce tornadoes, but 12 did.
Another NSSL/CIMMS and the University of Oklahoma team operated the Shared Mobile Atmospheric Research and Teaching radars and reported similar numbers. NSSL’s Field Command vehicle was used to help coordinate operations in the field along with NSSL’s fleet of instrumented vehicles including mobile mesonets, balloon sounding trucks, and a vehicle to deploy disdrometers.
Several intercepts included the operation of the University of Colorado’s Unmanned Aerial System, an instrumented remote control airplane that was flown through different parts of the storm. This was the first time an unmanned aircraft has been used to collect data close to supercells.
Researches are using the vast reservoir of VORTEX2 data to advance their understanding of tornado behavior. Results are expected to help forecasters extending tornado warning lead times and improve tornado warning skill to protect the public.
NSSL scientists presented current research at the American Meteorological Society’s Severe Local Storms Conference Oct. 11-14 in Denver Colo.
Research from the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2009-2010 (VORTEX2) was a highlight with a special overview session held the first evening. Other VORTEX2 presentations and posters included tornado events seen by mobile radars during the project, storm structure and decay processes, a survey of particle probe measurements, and a report on the VORTEX2 operations center. VORTEX2 Principal Investigators and teams met at the end of the week to share their best cases and coordinate working with the data.
Presentations on the NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed included an update on the 2010 Experimental Warning Program real-time severe storm warning exercises, the use of lightning data, and a comparison of Storm Data reports to National Weather Service severe storm watches and warnings. Posters highlighted new techniques for hail detection and improved instrumentation for mobile weather observations.
Other topics presented include an analysis of tornado fatalities, the state of the science on climate change and severe weather, analysis of a tornadic supercell sampled by National Weather Radar Testbed Phased Array Radar and the current weather radar, high-resolution storm-scale numerical weather prediction and the future of severe storm forecasting.
A first place award for first time presenters went to Sean Waugh, University of Oklahoma student and Sherman Frederickson, NSSL Engineer for their poster on a creative new design for measuring temperature more accurately for the mobile mesonets.
Our quest for knowledge leads us to outer space and the depths of the ocean using spacecraft, ships and submarines. Flatbed trucks, mini-vans, and converted ambulances generally do not inspire one to think of epic scientific journeys. However, this spring, an armada of land-based research vehicles embarked on a historic expedition in the Great Plains to collect clues about the mysteries behind tornadoes.
More than 100 researchers and students assembled the largest collection of cutting-edge weather equipment in history for the NOAA and National Science Foundation-sponsored Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2009-2010, or VORTEX2. Their mission was to cast a net of weather instruments around and under rotating thunderstorms in hopes of catching a tornado as it formed.
The fieldwork arm of VORTEX2 is now complete and the hard work of data analysis is underway.
Why are Scientists All Spun Up About Tornadoes?
Like space and the sea, much of the atmosphere remains a mystery. A thunderstorm can be a massive monster climbing miles into the sky and stretching hundreds of miles across the land. How does such a beast begin to rotate? What causes it to concentrate its energy into a spinning whirlwind a fraction of the size of its source? What draws the funnel to the ground to destroy and, moments later, causes it to recoil upwards into the atmosphere? These questions are what drive researchers to solve the mysteries behind tornadoes.
VORTEX2 was designed so researchers could observe all the scales of motion from the thunderstorm down to the tornado.
“Understanding tornadoes means understanding the storm environment,” said Don Burgess, a retired NOAA research meteorologist who works part-time with the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies in Norman, Okla., and a VORTEX2 Steering Committee member.
One use of VORTEX2 data will be to develop computer models that are so specific they can predict the behavior of individual thunderstorms and ultimately tornadoes.
“What VORTEX2 is trying to do is extend tornado warning lead times from the current 13 minute average to 30-50 minutes,” said Lou Wicker, also a VORTEX2 Steering Committee member and NSSL scientist.
Fast and Furious Tornado Research
VORTEX2’s modern day explorers roamed across nine states over a five-week period in the spring of 2009 and another six weeks in 2010. The nomadic fleet included 10 mobile radars, a remote control aircraft, weather balloons, instrumented vehicles, and vehicles equipped to drop instruments in the path of a storm.
“The daily search for tornadoes was relentless, sometimes driving more than 500 miles during a single mission,” said Sean Waugh, University of Oklahoma student working at NSSL and on VORTEX2. “Many vehicles in the project logged more than 25,000 miles.”
Reflecting Back on a Whirlwind of a Research Tour
VORTEX2 teams have been home for almost two months now. Finally, there is time to reflect on the data collection phase of the project.
“Last year, we only got one [tornado], but the one we got was a very good one – a significant tornado,” said Burgess. “We encountered quite a number of smaller, short-lived tornadoes this year,” he added.
In total, VORTEX2 researchers gathered data on at least 30 rotating thunderstorms (known as supercells) and 20 weak or short-lived tornadoes this year.
“These [smaller, short-lived tornadoes] are the most prevalent type of tornadic activity,” said Wicker. “And, they are the most difficult to forecast, detect and issue warnings for.”
More Hard Work Ahead
Analysis of the vast amounts of data takes time, but its time well spent.
“We’ll be looking at this data for five to 10 years,” Wicker said. “Two years from now we’re going to have a much better feel for what we’re going to learn from this experiment.”
NSSL has been exploring the relatively new area of social networking with considerable success. Through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs more people are hearing about our science than ever before.
NSSL created a VORTEX2 Facebook page in the Spring of 2009 to keep interested people updated on the activities of the biggest tornado experiment in history. To date, this page has 10,559 fans! Daily updates were posted during operations, and as analysis of the data begins and results emerge, those will be posted on the site as well.
NSSL’s Chase StormDawg Facebook page also has a growing number of fans: right now 780 since he was started April 21. His posts target a broader audience, including kids. A retired science teacher come up with some questions for Chase StormDawg – and we are posting the answers daily in the “Notes” section of the page. Chase has been in the field with VORTEX2 and reported on daily operations using terms the general public could understand.
NSSL’s Facebook page has almost 3000 fans. Here we post photos of celebrations and events, interesting activities, upcoming or active projects and more.
Posts made on Facebook are also “tweeted” on our Twitter pages.
Finally, NSSL’s longtime newsletter, NSSL Briefings, has transitioned to an all online blog called NSSL Briefings Online. The site is updated each time a new article becomes available, with a monthly or bi-monthly email to subscribers announcing the most recent updates.
We invite you to connect with us and our research by following the embedded links!
The data collection phase for the biggest tornado research project in history, the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment – 2009/2010 (VORTEX2) wrapped up on June 15 in New Mexico. Researchers hope this data will help them better understand tornadoes and lead to further improvements in tornado warning skill.
Preliminary numbers show VORTEX2 intercepted about 30 supercells, and 20 weak or short-lived tornadoes. Several of the tornadoes with a greater than EF2 ratings were observed by a few teams. Operations occurred in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. The fleet of 10 mobile radars and dozens of other instrumented vehicles were driven over 15,000 miles each. Up to 75 hotel rooms were booked each night, housing up to 150 people at times.
Several intercepts included the operation of the Unmanned Aerial System, an instrumented remote control airplane that was flown through different parts of the storm.
Researchers feel VORTEX2 was successful, but the number of tornadoes during both years of the project were below average. “We certainly sampled the most typical type of tornadic events, rather than the big tornados. In the long run, this could turn out to be even more useful data,” reflects Lou Wicker, NSSL researcher and VORTEX2 steering committee member.
Analysis of the vast amounts of data now begins. “Data from the original VORTEX experiment was still being discussed and published for 5-7 years after it ended. I expect that to be the same here, at the very least,” says Wicker.
Researchers hope they will be able to have a VORTEX3 in another decade, but anticipate smaller efforts in the meantime.
VORTEX2 was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NOAA.
(This will be updated as more information and time to post become available. Given the local nature of the event, information may be obtained quickly, but time may be at a premium.)
A significant outbreak of tornadoes occurred over Oklahoma and southern Kansas on 10 May 2010. Numerous damaging, long-track tornadoes have been reported from the Red River on the southern Oklahoma border up through southern Kansas. As of 6 AM CDT, 11 May, there have been 37 preliminary tornado reports. This is likely to change following damage surveys that will begin later today. A very preliminary summary of information from the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman covering their region is available here. The Tulsa Forecast Office also has a briefing on the eastern Oklahoma portion of the outbreak.
At this time, there are five fatalities reported in Oklahoma, 2 from the Choctaw area of Oklahoma County and 3 from Tecumseh in Pottawatomie County.
VORTEX2 collected data on the storm that produced the Norman tornado east of Norman.
There were media reports of damage at the National Weather Center. These reports are untrue, although the tornado was visible from the NWC and debris could be seen as the tornado moved east of the NWC. In addition, some staff members suffered damage at their residences.
Chase StormDawg has agreed to join VORTEX2 as a photojournalist and special correspondent for kids. The border collie on loan from JoshC, his human, and will explore the atmosphere for the next six weeks to show kids weather science.
NOAA and the National Science Foundation are sponsoring more than 100 scientists, students and staff from around the world to collect weather data around and under a supercell thunderstorm. VORTEX2 teams are using a fleet of 10 mobile radars and 70 other instruments all equipped with cutting edge communication and computer technologies. Much about tornadoes remains a mystery, and researchers hope this data will help them better understand tornadoes and lead to further improvements in tornado warning skill.
During 2009 operations, the VORTEX2 armada roamed more than 10,000 miles across the southern and central Plains from May 10-June 13. Data were collected on 11 supercells, including one tornadic supercell.
New for 2010 operations will be the addition of the University of Colorado Tempest Unmanned Aerial System – model airplanes designed to fly underneath the storm to collect data. Also, three more mobile radars now have dual-polarization capabilities and the radar scouts and mobile mesonets have been redesigned to make operations more efficient.
VORTEX2 2010 operations can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and through a blog called V2Talk. More information is available on the web: http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/vortex2.
A special correspondent for kids has joined the VORTEX2 team for 2010. His name is Chase StormDawg, and he can be followed on Twitter and Facebook too!